AO26 Spring 2009:
> Little Angel Theatre – The Giraffe, The Pelly, and Me
> Complicite – Shun-Kin
> Living Structures – Cart Macabre
> The Winged Cranes – The Soldier With No Name
Little Angel Theatre
The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me
Little Angel Theatre, London
Reviewed by Penny Francis
I may as well put my cards on the table: this production is and will remain one of my all-time favourites of puppet theatre. Considering the number I’ve seen over the last forty years, that’s saying something.
It lives up to everything I look for in a show: first, the idea – it is based on one of Roald Dahl’s most endearing stories, perfect for puppets because the protagonists are not only a giraffe, a pelican and a monkey, but include the perfect caricature of an English country squire. By contrast the leading character, a shy, charming lad, is the quintessence of every shy, charming lad you’ve ever met.
Second, the design of the sets and the puppets – the scenography: it’s by Peter O’Rourke, he of previous Little Angel shows such as Jabberwocky and Fantastic Mister Fox, and although they were excellent, he has excelled himself here. The sets are almost puppets in themselves, always in motion, and the puppets are designed to be – aesthetically speaking – integral to the sets; or, if you prefer, the look of the thing is all of a piece. The rickety house we first see is transformed and ‘renovated’ as parts of it are removed and replaced, by invisible builders wielding visible tools – animated hammers and saws – until the trembling building tries not to fall apart entirely and the shopfront of the Ladderless Window Cleaning Company is erected. The boy watches it all with amazement. Later the house is replaced – in a moment of theatrical metamorphosis - with a tall backcloth that suggests the squire’s mansion; later still the same backdrop becomes a shadow screen for the entr’acte before we are returned to the original house. The designs are witty and as inventive as any you can imagine.
Third, the music: Ben Glasstone has composed a score full of melody and matching wit in the songs (by Dahl and Glasstone). It is performed to perfection by two musicians, Hannah Marshall and Susi Evans, and so perfectly matched to the action I could’ve sworn it was being played live.
Fourth, the script – ditto as to wit: it’s fast and funny, written by Tim Kane.
Last but decidedly not least, the first-class performances which carried the show along. Four puppeteer-actors played, sang and spoke in full view, wearing informal black costumes and hats, manipulating the figures with high skill and speaking (with some improvised asides) as well as singing for their characters in a range of voices. Their versatility and their expertise were not surprising as they are four of the best in the business: Seonaid Goody and Mandy Travis, Michael Fowkes and Ronnie Ledrew, the last-named well on his way to becoming a national treasure of the puppet stage.
Finally the super quality of the show lay in the marriage of all the above elements by the director/designer, Peter O’Rourke, to form a satisfying whole that will be remembered as one of the triumphs of the Little Angel company. It played to full houses and even had its run extended. I hope it has a longer life ahead of it, touring at home and abroad and one day returning to its home base, no doubt by popular demand.
Barbican Theatre, London
16 February 2009
Co-produced by Complicite, barbicanbite09 and Setagaya Public Theatre, Tokyo.
Puppetry by Blind Summit Theatre
Reviewed by Eleanor Margolies
Junichiro Tanizaki’s 1933 story, A Portrait of Shunkin, relates the life of the nineteenth-century blind musician Shunkin, and her relationship with her servant-pupil-lover Sasuke. In Complicite’s Shun-kin, an actress arrives at a Tokyo sound studio to record this story. Through the narrator, we glimpse a bright, noisy world of refrigerators, bullet-trains and mobile phones – the vision of modern Japan seen in The Elephant Vanishes (also Complicite/ Setagaya, 2003). Shun-kin, however, is about delicate sensations – a dim black and white photo of a woman’s face, an inky city on a hill at night, water poured through a bamboo pipe, the sigh made by sliding screens, the fluttering of wings.
Against seductive lamplight and rich shadows, the play depicts violence running through a hierarchical system. The story of how Shunkin lost her sight as a child – deliberately infected with venereal disease by a jealous maid – is full of horror, while she herself is tyrannical and callous. A second on-stage reader of Tanizaki’s story – a man in 1930s suit and hat – questions the ‘fabrication’ of a painless life-story: ‘It must have been much more brutal’.
Young Shunkin appears as a two-foot-high puppet: a head, hands and kimono manipulated by two female puppeteers in black skirt suits. The puppet is replaced by a masked actress, a rod protruding from the back of her head. Manipulated by the puppeteers, her movement is precise, restricted and compelling. Eventually, one puppeteer throws this actor-puppet aside to take on the role herself – only for her face to be concealed in turn by another mask, this time of white bandages.
In Japanese puppet theatre the stage is shared by narrator, shamisen player, puppet and puppeteers. Shun-kin eases us into this form by providing reasons for the division of roles; the musician who at first plays Shunkin’s teacher simply remains on stage, accompanying the action. But the fracturing continues: a student’s ritual bow to his teacher is simultaneously performed by three pairs of actors; Shunkin relentlessly thrashes her stick as countless men roll under it, as if every night is the same.
Shunkin’s repeated gestures reflect the mechanical cruelty of the relationship and a refusal of change: she will not acknowledge Sasuke as her lover; their children are given away; after a violent attack, her fear of being seen as disfigured is so unbearable that Sasuke blinds himself to preserve her image. The play too can seem to lack development, a ‘heart’. But if repetition is deadly, it is also essential for mastery of an art (we see Sasuke practise the shamisen ‘night after night after night’) and at the end of the play, repetition becomes nurturing: pairs of students care for the aged, blind Sasuke as he once cared for Shunkin. In turn, they kneel by him, cradle his shoulders, and place a bowl of soup or tea in his hands. The repeated gesture takes time to perform and creates the passing of time. It raises questions about our relationship to the past – questions which have always been part of Complicite’s work.
Shunt Vaults, London
28 February 2009
Reviewed by Dorothy Max Prior
You can’t take it with you when you die. No sir-ee. It doesn’t matter what you’ve got, it’s all just so much dust and ashes. You leave this world as you arrive, naked and alone.
And so here we are, stripped of our belongings, naked (well, beneath our clothes anyway), and alone (until we are suddenly aware that there is another body pushed in against us); abandoned to darkness and trundled off in a coffin-cart, reflecting on what it might feel like to shake off this mortal coil and journey through the underworld.
In the nicest possible way, or at least in a way that is not altogether terrifying all of the time, Living Structures give us an immersive theatre experience of – well, of death.
Cart Macabre is a kind of Jungian ghost train – a whiz-crash-bang fairground ride through the collective unconscious, a fantastical exploration of the ‘after-death’. Living Structures have done their homework – Christian notions of purgatory and limbo; the Tibetan Bardo of Becoming; the Western Lands from the Egyptian Book of the Dead; the Ancient Greek journey through Hades’ kingdom – the whole world of myths and mythologies, spiritual and religious signs and symbols relating to death and the imagined experience after death, are plundered mercilessly.
I am the first from the waiting group to be placed on a wooden ‘stretcher’ and taken to a place of darkness, where I am moved into a box of some sort. My ‘coffin’ at first confines me in complete darkness and almost- silence (I can hear random clunks and clanks and the distant sound of people drinking at the bar. Ah, that’ll be my wake, then). After what seems like a long time alone, I feel another body next to me. I’ve no idea if it belongs to a man or a woman, young or old. More bodies arrive. We hear the melancholy (funereal, even) sound of a solo voice ringing in the darkness.
Then, little windows appear offering a welcome, if temporary, return of the light. I’m so busy grinning inanely at my fellow travellers, seen for the first time, that I almost forget to look at the little animations in front of me – four small square ‘fish tank’ displays featuring what look to be bones and blood, soil and watery amoeba. The building blocks of life now breaking down, or perhaps regenerating. The windows close, we are again in darkness, and are now trundled off – although it took me a minute or two to relax into the notion that I was in a cart being moved along, rather than being in a big dark box being shaken by lunatics and attacked by mad dogs.
And so it goes – darkness, sound, light, darkness – and on we go. A myriad of images and sensory impressions pass by, or leap out, or slyly intrude upon our space. A host of little butterfly-souls fly away; we look down upon a woman in her bed singing her swan-song; a marauding gang of carnivalesque Big Heads taunt us, clambering over our carts; we look out to see our bagged possessions dangling in a waterfall, and our coats merrily dancing above our heads.
At one point we are pulled from the carts and pushed through a tight tunnel of cloying material (the only part of the show that I find oddly pointless – not because it’s unpleasant, I really don’t mind –but I don’t understand. If this is rebirth then it ought to be at the very end surely? And if it isn’t that, then what is it? Why get us up and sit us down again?)
The musty tunnels and archways of the underground Shunt Vaults are in many ways the perfect site for this performance, although there are some issues with the way the arrival and ‘pre-set’ are handled – it would perhaps be easier to stage this piece in a space that is exclusively under Living Structures’ control.
Yet this is but a small gripe. It is an extremely ambitious project, which for the most part is pulled off with great aplomb, somehow. (See From the Frontline in this edition to learn more about the making of this piece.)
It is great to see shadow puppetry, animation and a theatre-of-objects integrated so beautifully with physical performance, site, and music. It is the acapella singing – solo and chorus work equally wonderful – that is the glue that holds this experience together.
This is a theatre of the senses – Grotowski has spoken disparagingly of the ‘children of Artaud’ and their noise-making, but these children of Artaud give us an invigorating updated interpretation of the notion of a ‘total theatre’. A sensory assault yes – but one that reaches the imagination through the senses, getting to heart of the matter (a matter of life and death…).
Cart Macabre gets the heart racing (literally), fires the imagination, and sets us thinking about the one inevitability we all face – death. It does so using melancholy, whimsy, grotesque humour, and more than a touch of beauty.
I’d say Living Structures are set for a great future – a company to watch (and listen to, touch, and smell).
The Winged Cranes
The Soldier with No Name
Blue Elephant Theatre, London
3 March 2009
Reviewed by Eleanor Margolies
Claude Cahun (1894 – 1954) was a self-confessed narcissist: ‘Individualisme? Narcissisme? Certes. C’est ma meilleure tendance.’ In a series of compelling self-portraits she staged wildly contrasting personas: masculine, feminine, masked, unmasked, wearing wigs and fancy dress, or shaven-headed and stripped down. It’s easy to see the appeal of combining these documents of performance art with the drama of Cahun’s ‘real’ life: her life-long relationship with another woman artist and their counter-propaganda activities in occupied Jersey.
Unfortunately – unlike the consciously manipulated narcissism of Cahun’s photographs – The Soldier with No Name displays little awareness of its audience. The programme credits a battery of designers (sound, lighting, set and costume, visual and photographic) and three performers, among them Alle Valle – ‘who also directs’. The lack of an ‘outside eye’ is apparent throughout: in lighting which fails to illuminate the intended focus of attention (a puppet’s face, or a shower of glitter); in the way that accents are allowed to obstruct communication; in the clumsy, over-literal handling of some props and the under-employment of others. Nor is a writer named; long, undigested quotations and cartoon-like presentation of history and politics alternate with indulgent monologues by female ‘icons’ such as Eve and Cinderella.
The language of puppetry ought to suit the subject of Claude Cahun, with her sense of the self as performed, and her great interest – shared with other surrealists – in objects, masks and figures. Yet the decision to present her as a puppet among human actors obscures any sense of relationship between Cahun and her lover Marcel Moore. In an early scene showing the 1945 trial of the two women for their resistance activities, a sturdy young woman in a black boilersuit stands beside a two-foot-high puppet with a polished, delicately modelled face (similar in style to those made by Nick Barnes for Blind Summit, with whom Alle Valle has worked). The prosecutor is a voice-over, leaving the audience to stare at the motionless women and wonder why they are in such different worlds.
The Soldier with No Name picks up some of the themes and objects used by Cahun, only to employ them in far less provocative ways. Cahun described her art as ‘the impossible realised in a magic mirror’. Her photographs – troubling assemblages of everyday objects, bodies treated as objects, selves doubled, conjoined and fragmented – invite animation. But the empty frame which this company placed on the stage was no more than a gesture towards her ‘magic mirror’.