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Eleanor Margolies takes us down the Street of Animation

Complicite has spent 25 years exploring the long street of theatrical animation, on which puppets are just one stopping point. Actors gather at one end of the street and stroll freely up and down it. They wander into curious shops and turn over the heaps of chairs, books, clothes, farm implements, musical instruments and archaeological finds. They disappear off at the far end of the street, which is haunted by video projections, sound recordings and shadows. Along this street, you might find Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwen setting out hundreds of chairs in a house designed by the Brothers Quay (The Chairs, 1997). You might see Lilo Baur plucking berries from bushes mimed by the fingers of the rest of the company and dropping them into a zinc bucket with a ‘ping’ supplied by the sound designer (The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol, 1994). You might construct the image of an elephant from fragments of video projected on moving screens (The Elephant Vanishes, 2003).

The company, currently described as ‘a constantly evolving ensemble led by Simon McBurney’, is profoundly influenced by literature. Although the work of Complicite’s patron-writers is often a source of plot or characters, what is most significant is the particular attitude towards the material world each transmits: John Berger’s understanding of the peasant’s relation to time and sparse resources; Bruno Schulz’s vision of the life in objects – ‘How much ancient suffering is there in the varnished grain of our old familiar wardrobes?’; or Junichiro Tanizaki’s evocation of a lost world of shadows and patina – ‘We love the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them’. This literary debt is fully acknowledged in the company’s published work. The script for The Street of Crocodiles (1992), for example, includes quotations which ‘point the reader‘ towards the text that inspired each scene, and an invitation to ‘pick up Schulz’s books. And travel.’

Ideas about the importance of the material world combine with Lecoq’s teaching to generate a way of working in which objects have an independent presence. Crucially, designers of set, costume, light, sound and projection are all present in the devising process. Simon McBurney and Mark Wheatley write of The Street of Crocodiles: ‘If you had opened the door of the rehearsal room when we first began you might have thought you were in a prop maker’s workshop, a second-hand clothes store, or even a hallucinatory jam session, with the participants playing desks instead of drums and dancing with coats instead of partners.’

Working with objects in this improvisatory way, two related impulses are visible: a desire to convey the meanings with which previous generations have invested everyday objects, and a desire to liberate the potential the objects contain. Books flap their pages and fly in The Street of Crocodiles, while in Mnemonic (1999), a chair becomes a man, punning on the relationship between animate and inanimate things with backs, legs and arms. There is a continuum between the everyday object and the object designed as a puppet, and any attempt to make a firm distinction between them becomes even more complicated with the addition of new technology.

Complicite’s most recent production, Shun-kin, dramatises what might be described asthree stopping points on the street of animation. The first is a puppet modelled on traditional Japanese bunraku puppets. In his essay In Praise of Shadows, Junichiro Tanizaki describes the female bunraku puppets as consisting ‘only of a head and a pair of hands. The body, legs, and feet are concealed within a long kimono’. He compares the sequestered women of the upper class in pre-modern Japan to this type of puppet: ‘for a woman who lived in the dark it was enough if she had a faint, white face – a full body was unnecessary’.  In a circular movement, Complicite and Blind Summit use bunraku puppets to dramatise his story about a woman of that era, the blind musician Shunkin. Young Shunkin appears first as a two-foot-high puppet with a porcelain-like face and a fall of straight black hair. Two female puppeteers, wearing modern black skirt suits, manipulate her using a rod on the back of the head. At one point she sweeps past in the half-light, nothing but an empty kimono with a human hand emerging from the sleeve.

Later, Shunkin is played by a female actor wearing a smooth white mask. A short black rod protrudes from the back of her head, and she is manipulated by the two puppeteers. The movements of this ‘puppet-actor’ are beautifully precise but highly restricted. She swings through precisely the same arc over and over again as she beats her servant-guide-lover Sasuke; she has become a machine.

Finally, one of the two puppeteers throws this puppet-actor aside to take on the role herself. She initially screams and stamps in an excess of emotion, only for her face to be concealed by another mask, this time of white bandages. The sequence of transformations – from puppet to puppet-actor to actor – recalls Poh Sim Plowright’s suggestion in Mediums, Puppets, and the Human Actor in the Theatres of the East that human actors in Asian theatre modelled themselves on string puppets, emulating their precision and non-naturalistic gestures.

The puppeteers of Blind Summit Theatre are credited with the puppetry on Shun-kin, and the scenes show evidence of their characteristic concerns. Typically working with bunraku-style puppets operated by two or more puppeteers, Blind Summit has often played with the relationship between puppets and puppeteers, with puppets even asking directly for human help. Here, this existential concern is woven through the whole play. Shunkin is portrayed as being in a state of dependence on others – as a child, as a member of the upper class, and as a blind person. In an ironic touch, Shunkin imperiously calls ‘Hand!’ when summoning Sasuke. Though she is no more than a head and a pair of hands, dependent on human hands to animate her, she makes her servant into a mere object.

The three representations of Shunkin recall a much earlier sequence of transformations in the Complicite/National Theatre production of Caucasian Chalk Circle, with puppetry directed by Sue Buckmaster (1997). The Governor’s son, Michael, appears first as a baby, a mere bundle of white cloth. As the years pass, he is portrayed by a life-size rod puppet – an abstract human figure, made of white rags.  Finally, miraculously, from inside what we took to be a puppet, there emerges a real human boy. This transformation produces great delight, suggesting its deep resonances. It resembles a natural process – a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis – and also those magic tricks which mimic nature, producing life from lifeless things, such as a dove from a top hat. There are perhaps even echoes of The Winter’s Tale (produced by Complicite at the National Theatre in 1992). On touching what is supposed to be a statue of his wife, Leontes discovers ‘She’s warm’.

‘How funny it was to be made of wood,’ he said to himself at last, ‘and how splendid it is to be real!’ As in Pinocchio, ‘coming to life’ in The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a social as well as a natural process: Michael is no longer an ‘infans’, an object without language, but a social being. Although puppets are not always silent, they have – like all objects –  a particular relationship with silence. The unfolding use of animation in this production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle illuminates the framing story of Brecht’s play – the debate between fruit-growers and goat-herders over the proper use of a valley. Just as Michael’s fate cannot be decided by a mere test of strength, so too land and objects must be spoken for and about in conversations about utility and non-utilitarian values: ‘It’s true that we have to consider a piece of land as a tool with which one produces something useful. But it’s also true that we must recognize the love for a particular piece of land.’

Telling stories about objects is one of the simplest ways of animating them. In Mnemonic two stories about the meaning of objects are interwoven. A journalist examines a pair of shoes that belonged to Alice’s father. He concludes that her father must have been ‘a motor cyclist. Well, look at the way the right is worn more than the left. Here and here.’ A little later, he reconsiders. ‘Your father, he plays the piano. The shoe is worn here and here…’ Meanwhile, archaeologists from around the world struggle for possession of the story of a neolithic Ice Man, by defining the meaning of the objects found with his body. A pause to tell stories on the street of animation might take you into one of its numerous cafes, or into an international court.

At the other end of the street of animation, Complicite keeps returning to the ways in which live human presence is mediated, and how we relate to intangible ‘media puppets’ such as images, sound and video recordings, and intermittently animated objects such as mobile phones. In Shun-kin, a modern Japanese woman takes a break from a sound recording to make a mobile phone call, describing her love affair ‘without a face’. In Mnemonic, Simon McBurney addresses the audience in the persona of the director: ‘Before we start the show I’d like to say one or two words about memory.’ He talks, we listen; we look at the leaves we have been given to hold as he tells us about them. A mobile phone rings on stage and McBurney answers it in character as ‘Virgil’, while the voice of McBurney the director continues in voiceover. By the time we recognise that we are listening to a recording, we have no idea when the change between the live and the recorded voice might have taken place.

Eleanor Margolies is the editor of Puppet Notebook, published by British Unima. See

A special note on Shun-Kin from Complicite: ‘Nigoshichi Shimouma, who played Old Sasuke in the London revival, died suddenly from cancer in April shortly after the run in Tokyo finished. He was wonderful to work with and we will remember him fondly.’

For more on the profiled company, see 

Image top of page: Complicite Mnemonic. Photo Sebastian Hoppe

Image centre above: Complicite Shun-Kin. Photo Tsukasa Aoki

Image centre below: Complicite The Caucasian Chalk Circle in rehearsal. Photo Simon Annand

All images courtesy of the company






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