When puppetry stops being child’s play
By Mark Brown
It is often observed that Britain is an island, culturally as well as geographically. There are some aspects of continental European culture which simply don’t achieve the impact in the UK they do in Poland, Slovenia or Belgium. Puppetry is a case in point. Mention puppet theatre to someone in Folkestone or Falkirk and, chances are, they’ll tell you it’s for children.
The annual manipulate puppet and animation festival, hosted by the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and Norwich Puppet Theatre, sets out to undermine the myth that puppets are simply child’s play. Produced by Puppet Animation Scotland, the festival boasts a strong, international programme of sometimes comic, but often serious, theatre of puppet, object and animation.
Plucked, the latest show by English company Invisible Thread, is very much a case in point. The company was created in 2011, and is one of two successor companies to the famous Faulty Optic puppet theatre group. Audiences at the National Theatre of Scotland’s acclaimed recent production of A Christmas Carol encountered startling puppets by Faulty Optic’s Gavin Glover. Anyone who enjoyed the brooding, otherworldly aesthetic of the NTS show is almost certain to be fascinated by Plucked, which is the brainchild of Glover’s long-time collaborator and artistic director of Invisible Thread, Liz Walker.
As Walker explains, the piece is a dark, thought-provoking, sometimes comical fairytale, a deep metaphor about the female life cycle. Intrigued by the bird-like qualities which are often attached to older women in fairytales (the term “old crow” comes to mind), she gave her Everywoman character the name of Flutter (the man who loves but leaves her in middle age is called Flap).
“It’s funny how things metamorphose,” says Walker. “As I was beginning this project, I became very interested in bird movements, and began manipulating figurative puppets, which are almost life-sized, to try to make them move as birds move, or how they would move if they were human.”
Indeed, she explains, this idea, of human-bird figures and the choreography which emerged from it, was the starting point for the narrative of Plucked. “It didn’t start off as a fairytale, but it became one, just from the choreography of playing around and imagining how people would move if they were birds.”
In this fairytale we follow Flutter’s life from adolescence through young love to motherhood, middle age and, ultimately, old age. Her children are represented by objects, rather than by human figures, a fact which Walker prefers to leave unexplained, all the better that we will ponder its meaning.
“Traditionally, in fairytales, the journey through the wood represents the transition from childhood to womanhood,”, says the director. “In our piece, it represents the journey from womanhood into middle and old age.”
With its metaphorical mid-life journey through the dark forest, Plucked is, Walker readily acknowledges, a “quite serious” piece of theatre. Which is not to say that it is without humour.
“There’s an interlude in the show which is a pastiche of the Red Riding Hood story,” she adds. “It has a wolfman, and it’s quite bawdy and burlesque. It uses images from Red Riding Hood and other magical woods stories. It’s the sort of bawdy, seaside element of the show. And it’s quite rude. Which is why the show isn’t really suitable for anybody under the age of 14.”
This leads us neatly on to the question of why, when an acclaimed English puppet theatre artist such as Walker is making work aimed at adults and older teenagers, is puppetry still considered in the UK to be children’s theatre?
“I think the preconception in the UK is that puppetry is only for children, or can only be amusing,” Walker suggests. “People don’t have a concept of the history of puppetry, despite the fact that we’ve got the tradition of Punch and Judy, which – in its visual aesthetic, its viciousness and its anger – is probably more like Eastern European puppetry. It’s amazing how many people still think of puppetry as The Muppets, rather than any kind of hard-hitting, statement-making, visually inspiring, dark work which, for example, resurrects dead things.”
The reference to Eastern European puppetry is not a random observation. Walker notes that an early influence for her and her collaborators was the Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer, creator of the acclaimed object animation movie, Little Otik (which was turned, less than successfully, into a stage play by Vanishing Point and the National Theatre of Scotland back in 2008). “There’s a connection between the darkness, the moodiness and the bizarreness of Svankmajer’s films and our work,” she says.
So, why is puppetry and object animation for grown-ups so much more accepted in the Czech Republic, Hungary or Russia than it is in Scotland, England or Wales?
“In those countries they have more experimental art forms and more of a tradition of state-run puppet companies,” Walker explains.
“Puppetry has been used more radically, both politically and artistically …
“In France, too, there’s more of a tradition of puppetry for adults, which is reflected in the techniques, themes and subject matters you encounter in their puppet theatre.”
If British audiences are to grasp the great expressive possibilities of puppet theatre, there could be no better starting place than Manipulate.
The Manipulate festival is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, January 31-February 4. For further information, visit www.manipulatefestival.org
This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 15, 2012
© Mark Brown