Beautiful theatre – with strings attached
Puppet theatre sits on the margins of Scottish theatre culture. However, as Mark Brown discovers at the FIAMS festival in Quebec, puppetry offers a world of wonders.
As the Edinburgh festivals get into full swing, the focus tends to be on the big name comedians and actors. Little attention is given to puppet theatre. A relatively neglected art form throughout the UK, puppetry is more celebrated in other countries, not least in Quebec, as the wonderful, biennial programme of FIAMS (Saguenay International Festival of Puppet Arts) attests.
The City of Saguenay (a concept created in 2002, throwing a blanket over the small cities of Chicoutimi and Jonquiere and the town La Baie) is located some 288 road miles north of Montreal. Sitting on the banks of the Saguenay River, and boasting an impressive fjord, the city has a population of approximately 145,000 (similar to that of Dundee).
Local people are justly proud of FIAMS, which celebrated its 15th edition between July 23 and 28. The event attracts practitioners of puppet, object and mask theatre from around the world; including, this year, artists from countries as diverse as Mali, China, France, Mexico and, of course, Canada itself. The companies from Quebec often shone the brightest.
The outstanding show of this year’s FIAMS programme was, for my money, Le Cirque Orphelin, by Quebecois company Les Sages Fous. Highly original, beautifully quirky, sometimes disconcerting and, often, very funny, it creates, in a room that is the quintessence of dilapidated urbanism, a miniature circus of vagabond artists.
The Equilibrist, for example, is a puppet comprised of only a head and two arms, who performs brilliant acrobatics. He is joined by a high-octane character who zooms around in a wheelchair and a besotted, male figure who, ultimately, achieves his dream of swimming in the circus aquarium with the seductive mermaid.
The piece enjoys superb, atmospheric music and sound, excellent lighting and charmingly distinctive puppets. Most impressively, it brings all of these elements together in a memorably consistent aesthetic.
Aisselles et Bretelles (Armpits and Braces), performed for Quebec’s Theatre CRI by the fabulous Guylaine Rivard, is one of the most inventive, humorous and downright crazy shows I have ever seen. It is a work of object theatre in which the objects emerge, primarily, from with Rivard’s extraordinary, unfolding costume.
Children’s folk tales are referenced and expanded upon as the performer constantly alters her attire. Architectural wonders appear (and disappear), cartoons illustrate the action and amuse the audience, Donald Trump pops up hilariously as the absurd villain he is.
The effect of all this frenetic, borderline insane activity is to render Rivard (whose aesthetic is Terry Gilliamesque in both its visual and comic aspects) as a kind of one-woman Monty Python.
Dissection, by Quebec company Chantiers (makers of the haunting Petite Pousse), is a powerful example of the truly dark possibilities of puppetry. A show very much for adults, presented in half-light, it is a bleak work of visual, symbolist poetry. As a disquieting, live soundscape is created, the distinction between the human body and the puppet form is blurred emotively.
What seems like a dead, male, human body appears to be dragged through a forest. A woman pulls, first, a fish, then, an apple from her stomach. As she raises the apple to her mouth she disconnects a mask from her face and, appearing to have two visages, finally bites into the apple.
FIAMS also presents a great deal of work for children. The deliciously mad, wonderfully detailed Cache-Cache Marionettes (a Quebecois co-production between Theatre Puzzle of Montreal and Saguenay’s own Theatre La Rubrique) takes its family audience through the forest.
We encounter a fabulous panoply of puppet creatures (all made from branches and leaves), including a large, antlered animal (a moose or a caribou, perhaps) which is, understandably, terrified of “les humains”. Hilarious, engaging and wonderfully participatory for kids, it is an absolute joy.
Leaving Saguenay and heading for the cultural explosion of the Edinburgh festivals, it is obvious that the contribution of puppet theatre to the world’s biggest showcase for the arts can be overlooked. Some attention might be paid to the adult Broadway puppet comedy Avenue Q (Hill Street Theatre, until August 25) and the live shows (one for families, another for adults) of TV star Basil Brush (Underbelly, Bristo Square, until August 15 and 25, respectively), but there’s more to puppetry on the Fringe than that.
Puppet King Richard II (PQA Venues @ Riddle’s Court, until August 14), for example, combines two actors, recycled utensils, hand-carved Czech puppets and live music to present Shakespeare’s famous play. In Cabaret of Curiosities (theSpace @ Symposium Hall, until August 24) the puppet master of ceremonies Count Ocular (who has an eye for a head) presents a “gothic, vaudeville experience”.
Beyond the Fringe, Scotland does have some celebrated artists in the field, especially those (such as Andy Manley and Shona Reppe) who are making work for children. In addition, the annual Manipulate festival (held every February in Edinburgh) includes puppetry in its diverse programme of visual theatre and animated film.
However, returning from the FIAMS festival, one can’t help but wish that we would embrace more fully the delightful versatility of puppet theatre.
These reviews were originally published in The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National on August 4, 2019
© Mark Brown