Feature: Czech puppet theatre showcase

Czeching out the wonders of puppet theatre

Puppet theatre is neither old-fashioned nor just for children, as Mark Brown discovered at a recent showcase in the Czech Republic

Zuna #1.jpg
Natalia Vanova in Zuna. Photo: A. Vosickova

Everyone loves puppets. Whether it is childhood memories of that politically incorrect British seaside institution Punch and Judy, or reminiscences of Jim Henson’s far more ideologically sound Sesame Street, puppets evoke a strong emotional response.

The spectacular, much-loved puppets in the National Theatre (of Great Britain’s) excellent stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel War Horse, have set a new benchmark for British puppetry.

Puppets, like the animated cinematic and televisual characters that came after them, can do and say things that are more outlandish than any mere human can achieve. Perhaps this is why, even in the nations of the UK (where the traditions of puppet theatre are not especially strong), there remains a strong attachment to these most beguiling of stage creations.

For all of this affection for puppets, however, the fact remains that puppet theatre is largely marginal in the theatre cultures of Scotland and the other nations of the UK. The fact that the keepers of the flame of Scotland’s puppet theatre heritage (the Scottish Mask and Puppet Centre) run a limited programme from an unprepossessing building tucked away in a corner of the West End of Glasgow (a much-needed redevelopment is planned) tells its own story.

Elsewhere in the world, however, from the globally famous shadow puppetry of China and India to the revered puppet traditions of central and eastern Europe, puppetry is a far more serious, and celebrated, affair. Nowhere is that more true than in the Czech Republic, where puppet theatre remains very much a part of the national culture.

Little wonder, then, that the recent HI PerformanCZ showcase of Czech theatre should have been comprised primarily of puppetry. Hosted by the Czech national conservatoire (the country’s Arts and Theatre Institute) and the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic, the programme offered international guests, ranging from theatre directors to humble critics, the opportunity to sample the delights of contemporary Czech puppetry.

The showcase coincided with Prague’s somewhat cumbersomely named One Flew Over the Puppeteer’s Nest Festival (one can only assume the title sounds more charming in Czech). However, it also comprised visits to puppet museums and puppet and children’s theatres in the cities of Pilsen and Hradec Kralove, and the beautiful little town of Chrudim, in eastern Bohemia.

The puppet museum in Pilsen (which one could combine with a visit to Europe’s second biggest synagogue, truly an architectural wonder) is an educational delight which displays a wonderful variety of historical Czech puppets. The Chrudim museum has an even more impressive collection, telling, as it does, the stories, not only of the golden years of Czech puppetry in the 19th century (when the Czech lands were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), but also of other great puppet theatre traditions around the world.

Back in Prague, the beautiful, little show Zuna was a highlight of the puppet festival. The piece combines lovely, traditional puppets with live music and a story that is both folkloric and modern (the heroine, a young girl called Zuna, undoes a Faustian pact in order to be reunited with her beloved mother).

By turns humorous and touching, the play tells the story of a woman who, despairing of her childlessness, conceives a child with the assistance of a seemingly benevolent, old witch. In a lovely example of modern folklore resetting the gender assumptions of such stories, it features a comically gossipy and foolish gaggle of townsmen, whose inquisitiveness as to the woman’s sudden pregnancy leads them into wonderfully gruesome, supernatural trouble.

To Scottish eyes, the show is remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, its primary artist, talented author and performer Natalia Vanova, is a young theatremaker who has, in recent times, chosen to learn the techniques of puppetry.

Secondly, the work is produced by Continuo Theatre, an acclaimed Czech company known, first-and-foremost, for its street shows, of which puppet theatre is merely a strand. That Vanova and Continuo should alight together upon this new-yet-traditional puppet play is an indication of just how prevalent the art form is within Czech theatrical culture.

The festival gave a tremendous sense of the diversity of Czech puppetry. The Smallest of the Sami (by the Czechoslovakian Sticks company) tells a story of survival in the arctic north by means of the tiniest of tabletop figures. Both humorous and surprisingly engaging, it is part of an intriguing, increasingly prominent miniaturist strand in global puppetry.

The Bartered Bride (by Puppet Theatre Ostrava) recreates Smetana’s famous comic opera as a work of musical puppet theatre for families. Played metatheatrically in a theatre-within-a-theatre (at Prague’s wonderful children’s playhouse, Divadlo Minor), it is a gloriously colourful coming together of puppets and performers.

One might add to these a delightful telling of Oscar Wilde’s children’s story The Happy Prince (by Lampion Theatre) and DRAK Theatre’s Oddball (a clever and carefully considered interplanetary piece about autism).

Should, in the years to come, young Scottish theatremakers wish to take a turn towards puppetry, the Czech Republic would be a good place to start.

This feature was originally published in The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National on November 17, 2019

© Mark Brown

Reviews: FIAMS international puppet theatre festival, Saguenay, Quebec, 2019

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.

Le Cirque Orphelin (2)
A puppet from Le Cirque Orphelin. Photo: Les Sages Fous 

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

Reviews: Festival de Almada, Portugal, 2019

Isabelle Superb!

The excellent Portuguese theatre showcase Festival de Almada was illuminated by the great French actress Isabelle Huppert in the role of Mary Queen of Scots, writes Mark Brown

MARY SAID #4 - LUCIE JANSCH.jpg
Isabelle Huppert in Mary Said What She Said. Photo: Lucie Jansch

As Scotland gears up for the biggest cultural jamboree on the planet, it’s good to be reminded that other summer arts festivals are available. One of the finest, in my experience, is Festival de Almada, Portugal’s major programme of international theatre.

Hosted in the small city of Almada and, across the River Tagus, in Portugal’s beautiful capital city, Lisbon, the festival was the brainchild of the late, great theatre director Joaquim Benite. Now ably directed by Rodrigo Francisco (who was, for many years, Benite’s trusted assistant at Almada’s Municipal Theatre), the programme has just completed its 36th edition.

The most anticipated show at this year’s festival was Mary Said What She Said, a “monologue in three parts” written by acclaimed American author Darryl Pinckney for an imagined Mary Queen of Scots. Starring the great French actress Isabelle Huppert and directed, for Parisian theatre company Theatre de la Ville, by the outstanding American stage director Robert Wilson, the piece delivers on its promise abundantly.

Presented in the superb theatre of Centro Cultural de Belem in Lisbon, Wilson’s production is characteristically stylised and modernist. Huppert, costumed in a tastefully understated period dress, performs on a naked set which is illuminated by stark ever-changing, abstract images on the back wall.

The simplicity and conceptualism of the staging serves to concentrate the mind, not only on Huppert, but also on Pinckney’s remarkable script (which draws upon Mary’s letters). Huppert plays the piece in French (which was, of course, accompanied in Lisbon by Portuguese supertitles); but I had forearmed myself with Pinckney’s original, English-language text.

The play is structured like a modernist musical score, such as you might expect of Leos Janacek or Anton Webern. The performance is accompanied throughout by a wonderfully dramatic and diverse musical score by Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi.

Pinckney’s Mary expresses herself, in both live and recorded speech, in fragments of fear, bitterness and defiance which vary and repeat like a musical composition. She speaks her anger at her betrayal, abandonment and incarceration in a startling outburst: “I hate France… (Adieu, adieu, ma France.) I hate Scotland, but most of all do I hate England.”

Huppert performs Mary in her various states – from the calm resentment of her memories to the frenzied urgency of her final days – in a style that is breathtakingly varied, bold and unapologetically theatrical. In the final section, the actress (who, at 66 years, is some 22 years older than Mary Stuart was at her death) performs a stunning, frenetic, modern choreography in which brilliantly quick, angular movement propels the Queen towards her end.

Wilson’s audacious theatre-making attracts intelligent, fearless actors. He said of Huppert recently: “She can think abstractly. If I would work with Meryl Streep or any of the [American] actresses that we know internationally, it would be impossible for them to think formally, abstractly the way Isabelle can.”

Wilson skewers Streep (and her Hollywood contemporaries) on his praise of Huppert; which, surely, is a luxury he has earned in more than 50 years of creating avant-garde theatre. He is correct, of course. The outcome of his collaboration with Huppert is a piece of large scale chamber theatre (a Wilsonian paradox if ever there was one) that is worthy of any great theatre showcase, including our own Edinburgh International Festival.

Elsewhere in the Festival de Almada programme, Alessandro Serra’s Macbettu (performed in the gorgeous Teatro Nacional Dona Maria II in Lisbon), truncates Shakespeare’s Scottish play and relocates it to the Italian island of Sardinia. Performed, Elizabethan-style, with an all-male cast and in the Sardinian language, it is a work of tremendous, bleak imagery, fine acting and affecting music and sound.

The commedia dell’arte-style witches are performed with great skill and humour, but seem like a distracting entertainment, rather than an integral part of the drama. More damaging still is the virtual erasure of the sexual tension between Lady Macbeth and her vacillating husband, which is the beating heart of the play.

The French piece Saison Seche (Dry Season), which played at Teatro Municipal Joaquim Benite in Almada, is a courageous and direct work in which seven young women conduct the ritual destruction of a symbolic, masculine prison space. Although it is impressive in visual, technical and performative terms, its crotch-grabbing, public urinating stereotypes of inevitably “toxic” masculinity are tired and disappointing.

Edinburgh Fringe favourites Familie Floz (from Berlin) presented Dr Nest, which they played here last year to such acclaim that it was the 2019 festival’s “Show of Honour”. A typically excellent work of mask and physical theatre, this touching and humane piece, set in a psychiatric institution, lost some of its intimacy in being performed in the large, outdoor auditorium of the Escola D. Antonio da Costa in Almada.

Such is the diversity of Festival de Almada, which, this year, boasted work from countries as diverse as Argentina, Spain, Belgium, Norway and, of course, Portugal itself. This ever-impressive showcase remains a gem in the Portuguese cultural crown.

This article was originally published in The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National on July 21, 2019

© Mark Brown

Feature: Interview with theatre director Murat Daltaban

In the shadow of Erdogan

Award-winning Turkish theatre director Murat Daltaban talks to Mark Brown about making theatre in his home country and his recent move to Scotland

Murat #2 - CATS 2018
Murat Daltaban (left) with Zinnie Harris and Oguz Kaplangi at the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland ceremony in Perth. Photo: Perthshire Picture Agency

At last Sunday’s Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland (CATS), which were presented at Perth Theatre, the most successful production, by a distance, was Turkish director Murat Daltaban’s staging of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist classic Rhinoceros. Presented by the Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, in association with Daltaban’s company DOT Theatre, Istanbul, the show picked up the prizes for Best Production, Best Male Performance (Robbie Jack), Best Music and Sound (Oguz Kaplangi) and Best Director (for Daltaban himself).

The production, which boasted a brilliantly sharp, flexible adaptation by leading Scottish playwright Zinnie Harris, revived Ionesco’s bitterly comic allegory about conformism and the rise of fascism. In the play, the unlikely hero Berenger clings to his humanity as the people around him transform into rhinos.

The allegory, in which culture, freedom and, ultimately, humanity is trampled under the hooves of a collective social delirium, speaks powerfully to our own times. From the rise of Trump and the so-called “alt-right” in the United States to the election of extreme right, xenophobic parties in such countries as Austria, Hungary and Italy, Ionesco’s 1959 drama appears very much as a play for today.

It also chimes with events in Daltaban’s homeland of Turkey, where the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used the failed coup attempt of 2016 as a pretext for clamping down on democratic rights. What, I wondered when I met Daltaban at the Lyceum Theatre following his success at the CATS awards, was the relationship between his production of Rhinoceros and the current situation in Turkey?

“Politics in Turkey today is like a psychological war between the people and the state”, says the director. “The primary pressure is on the media. The only free media we have in Turkey right now is on the internet.”

Regarding theatre artists, the situation is mixed and complex, Daltaban explains. “There is censorship in the state-funded theatre companies. The government’s logic is that, if you receive government money, you can’t criticise the government.

“This is why I resigned from working with the state theatres”, he continues. DOT Theatre is artistically and financially independent of the state and “does not take any money from the government.”

However, Daltaban points out that Turkish theatre is not under a system of complete censorship. “The government doesn’t have an automatic state censorship system which demands to see scripts, for example. It is not official censorship, but psychological repression of theatre artists.”

One method of indirect censorship within the state theatre sector has been to reject plays by foreign writers, from Shakespeare to Dario Fo, on the basis of a “patriotic” decision to stage only dramas by Turkish writers. The irony of this is that one of the few examples of actual direct censorship has been against a contemporary Turkish writer, Onur Orhan.

Orhan’s monodrama Only A Dictator, which is considered by the state authorities to be a critique of President Erdogan, has faced bans wherever it has travelled in Turkey. Local state authorities cite “public order” concerns as their reason for closing the production down.

“The direct censorship faced by Only A Dictator has an intimidating effect on other theatre artists”, Daltaban comments. “They banned that play wherever it went, in order to create an atmosphere of intimidation that would affect other theatremakers.

“The result is that even artists who are independent of the state theatre system are engaged in self-censorship. This is a response to the psychological pressure exerted by the government.”

Which begs the question of the extent to which Daltaban and his company have been affected by the intimidation of the Erdogan regime. Not only has DOT Theatre been engaged in a major co-production with Scottish companies, but Daltaban and his family, and also his friend, and DOT Theatre’s composer, Oguz Kaplangi, have recently moved to live in Edinburgh.

“Our move to Scotland is not because of the repression in Turkey”, the director insists. “It is something we planned before the current situation developed.

“In order to create the kind of theatre we want to make, we wanted to spend half of our time in Scotland and half in Turkey. However, recent events in Turkey have made the process of relocating to Scotland a bit faster.”

DOT Theatre, which has its own successful and popular theatre venue in Istanbul, will continue its work in Turkey, and Daltaban will move back-and-forth between Edinburgh and Istanbul. He hopes to establish a production office for DOT in the Scottish capital, enabling the company to make more international work, not only with Turkish and Scottish artists, but with others in Europe, not least his contacts in Germany.

The director’s pre-existing plan to relocate to Scotland may have been expedited by the repression in Turkey, but it is rooted in artistic and personal experience. “We have been coming to Scotland for many years”, he says.

“Edinburgh is an international theatre space. Artistically, it is much more than local. I also believe that Scotland is a very happy place to live.”

As to the immediate future of Turkey, Daltaban is concerned, but optimistic about the general election on June 24. “The government has all the media, so the election definitely won’t be fair”, he says.

“However, in the last 10 years the civil society movement has become very experienced in terms of protecting the integrity of ballot papers, and the opposition movement is very strong.”

A slightly abridged version of this feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 17, 2018

© Mark Brown

Performing arts feature: Prague showcase

Prague Spring

The Czech performing arts are vibrant and diverse, as Mark Brown discovered at the recent showcase in Prague

Farm in the Cave 1
Farm in the Cave rehearsing Refuge. Photo: Linda Průšová

The Alfred ve Dvoře Theatre in Prague is not the obvious place to begin a showcase of Czech performing arts. Located in a little courtyard off a quiet side street in the Holešovice district of the city, it boasts a decidedly relaxed underground bar (we are in Bohemia, after all) and a theatre space that looks, from the outside, as if it has been constructed from the metallic shell of a Second World War bomb shelter.

The venue is about as far as it is possible to get, in cultural terms, from the grand buildings of the National Theatre and the Charles University Faculty of Arts which sit proudly by the Vltava River. Yet here it is that the HI PerformanCZ showcase begins its presentation of theatre and performance art to international guests from countries as diverse as Ivory Coast, South Korea and Georgia.

The wartime appearance of the theatre’s exterior is appropriate as we’re at the Alfred ve Dvoře to see the World War II drama Aviators. Staged by the Wariot Ideal company, the piece tells the story of the young Czech men who joined the resistance to the Nazi occupation of their homeland, only to find themselves flying British bombers over Germany.

The most impressive aspect of the show is the design, in particular the beautifully made models-cum-puppets of Second World War bombers and fighter aircraft (RAF and Luftwaffe) which the company has constructed out of wood. The battle scenes (which involve smart movement of the models in cleverly designed lighting) just about manage to avoid seeming like boys playing with their toys.

A modest work, performed with skill, humour and pathos, Aviators is the kind of show that would fit well in the Edinburgh Fringe programme of a producer like Assembly or Underbelly. Indeed, over the course of the four days of the showcase, I would see a number of productions that seemed tailor-made for the sprawling arts extravaganza we call the Fringe.

Perhaps most obviously “Fringe-worthy” is Cross-country Odyssey by comic double act The Trick Brothers. Forget the Chuckle Brothers, think more Sacha Baron Cohen for a family audience.

Performed outdoors as part of the Nuselské Dvorky one-day festival of outdoor theatre and contemporary circus (a lovely event which serves the working-class community of Nusle, which is otherwise somewhat culturally neglected) the show is an absolute delight. In the piece, a pair (later a trio) of clownish characters muck around with ski equipment in a brilliant slapstick performance that is reminiscent of Cohen’s Borat at his physically comic best.

The charming Nuselské Dvorky festival is, in many ways, representative of the independent performing arts scene in Prague. Handmade, yet professional, with a strong emphasis on social inclusion, its performance programme also included the delightfully quirky Nitroscope (a series of avant-garde vignettes offered in the six segments of a circus tent) by Le Cabaret Nomade.

Which is not to say that every production in the showcase impressed. Batachhio, by the successful contemporary circus company Cirk La Putyka, is often impressive in its skill, but disappoints with its puerile line in retrograde, end-of-the-pier physical comedy.

Even more disappointing are Look, The World! (by the resident company of the Minor children’s theatre) and Paperboy (presented at the Minor by the Mime Prague company). If these shows are typical of children’s theatre in the Czech Republic, it would certainly be fair to say that work for young audiences is not the country’s strongest suit.

Very basic in their design and staging, both shows reflect an old-fashioned attitude (which has, thankfully, been almost eradicated from Scottish culture) that theatre for children is, somehow, second class. Unimaginative and built, largely, around simple physical comedy (such as falling over or playing peek-a-boo), neither production would come close to making the cut for the ever-excellent Edinburgh International Children’s Festival (the current edition of which opened yesterday).

The overriding sense from the HI PerformanCZ programme, however, is one of a vibrant and diverse independent theatre scene in the Czech Republic. The scene is exemplified by welcoming, Bohemian venues such as the Vila Štvanice Theatre and Studio Alta.

It is also epitomised by extraordinary artist Marketa Stranska, an amputee (she has only one leg) whose performance work Fly is beautiful, highly accomplished and brilliantly challenging to disablist assumptions.

The highlight of the showcase, for me, was the visit to the superb contemporary arts venue DOX (which is akin, in a number of ways, to Tramway in Glasgow) to see rehearsed fragments from Refuge, the latest work from the internationally acclaimed, Prague-based company Farm In The Cave. Scottish lovers of physical theatre may remember the company from their visit to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006, when they presented the powerful piece Sclavi: The Song Of An Emigrant as part of the late, lamented Aurora Nova programme.

Premiering at DOX on June 4, the show, even just as a work-in-progress, was already looking like something very special indeed. Combining superb live music and sound, with song, acting and the brilliant and emotive physical performance that has become director Viliam Dočolomanský’s trademark, it looks set to become an unforgettable and passionately urgent meditation on the condition of the 21st-century refugee.

Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan could do a lot worse than get himself over to Prague for the premiere. Refuge could well be the kind of show he would like to consider for a future programme.

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 27, 2018

© Mark Brown

Reviews: FIAMS international puppet theatre festival, Saguenay, Quebec, 2017

No strings in Quebec

From existential human drama to the wonders of the childhood imagination, Mark Brown acclaims the FIAMS puppet theatre festival in Saguenay

Memorias #1
Memories Of An Hourglass

Scottish theatre audiences know the theatre of Quebec. We have for many years delighted in the work of Quebecois theatre luminaries such as Robert Lepage, Michel Tremblay, Jeanne-Mance Delisle and Catherine-Anne Toupin.

However, we are barely acquainted with Quebec’s strong tradition in puppet and object theatre. Indeed, it is only thanks to the annual Manipulate festival in Edinburgh, and to children’s theatremakers such as Shona Reppe and Andy Manley, that Scotland can hold its head up in the international puppet theatre community.

The place to see Quebec’s puppet theatre (and puppet work from France, Brazil, Norway and elsewhere) is Saguenay. A tranquil, well-heeled city with a population of around 145,000 (similar to that of Dundee), Saguenay is the home of FIAMS (the biennial Festival International des Arts de la Marionette), which ends its 14th edition today.

Some five hours north of Montreal by road, through the extraordinary Canadian wilderness (I had the good fortune, I kid you not, to see two black bears together as we sped along the highway), Saguenay is not the kind of city one might typically associate with an international theatre festival. Yet here it was that I encountered the world premiere of the exceptional show Memories Of An Hourglass.

A co-production between La Torture Noire (from Quebec) and Luna Morena (from Mexico), this piece is, like more than half of the FIAMS programme, aimed at adults and teenagers (rather than younger children). A poetic meditation on time, and, I think, on the special precariousness of the current human condition, it is full of powerful visual metaphors.

A woman is tied to threads that suspend a series of clocks in the air. In her hand is a spinning wheel around which the threads of time are woven, and in which an unfortunate man finds himself caught up. It is, surely, an image inspired by the early scene in Akira Kurosawa’s great 1957 Macbeth movie Throne Of Blood, in which a mysterious old man (standing in for the witches) spins time while offering fateful prophecies.

In another scene, there is a grotesquely comic play on the kind of public dissections of the human body that were common in Europe in the 19th-century. From this emerges, as if created by a latter day Dr Frankenstein, a half-man, half-puppet.

Struggling on crutches at first, he finds his feet, and even engages romantically with a female dancer, before he, quite literally, loses his head and falls apart. However, when his limbless torso is opened, another puppet, in the shape of a boy, emerges.

Such images are repeated again and again in a work which collides the analogue (an old gramophone player) with the digital (the show’s computer technology is wheeled across the stage, becoming a player in itself). Are we, the piece seems to ask, subsuming the corporeal and the tangible (indeed, our essential humanity) in the burgeoning virtuality of our increasingly digital existence? As the play (which would, surely, be a fine addition to the Manipulate programme) ends with the sound of a ticking metronome, it feels like the sort of work Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley would make for the 21st-century.

If the Quebecois/Mexican co-production was the highlight of the opening days of the festival, it was not the only show to impress. Landru, by French theatremakers Yoan Pencole and Cie Zusvex, combines various forms, including shadow puppetry and lifesize, representational puppetry, to consider the continued fascination with the serial killer Henri Desire Landru, aka “Bluebeard”.

Landru’s disembodied head finds itself transformed from a sculpture into the live subject of a court trial. There, the judge speaks from within a picture frame and the prosecution lawyer has no head. Bleakly humorous and startlingly inventive, the piece is testament to the possibilities puppetry offers to the visual imagination.

Likewise Nomadic Soul, another piece making its world premiere in Saguenay. Created entirely in monochrome, it is performed solely by its creator, Quebecoise artist Magali Chouinard.

The work is mindful of the nature-oriented belief systems of the First Nations peoples who populated this land long before European colonialists labelled it “Canada” or “Quebec”. The images of the raven and the wolf appear as aspects of Chouinard’s own human character. So, too, do female figures in old age, middle age and childhood.

Indeed, assisted by puppets, sculpture, projected film and animated illustration, the performer puts herself within the extraordinary masks and costumes of all three female figures and the wolf itself. It is a highly original, aesthetically exquisite and movingly humane piece of theatre.

photographe
The Heart In Winter. Photo: Michel Pinault

Children are by no means neglected at FIAMS. Much of the programme is dedicated to young theatregoers, including The Heart In Winter, by Quebecois company Theatre de l’Oiel. A retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of The Snow Queen, this charming play transforms the ill-fated boy Kai and his friend Gerda into modern day Quebecois kids, represented by delightful little puppets.

Also for young children, French company Le Clan des Songes offer Bella, a lovely exploration of the childhood imagination. Superb use of light to illuminate the puppets, but not the puppeteers, clashes a little with some kitsch elements in the representation of clouds and rain.

From a little French girl getting lost in a daydream to a deep rumination on 21st-century humanity at the existential crossroads, the FIAMS festival is testament to the immense potential of puppet theatre. May Scotland’s puppet theatremakers take heart.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 30, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre 2015

A Tempest, Three Sisters… and a travesty

Mark Brown takes in a visually fascinating Shakespeare, a touching Chekhov and an irresponsible play about Hitler in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi

A Tempest, by Silviu Purcarete
A Tempest, by Silviu Purcarete

Georgia’s historic capital city Tbilisi is not only the impressive metropolis where Scotland’s national football team suffered a recent, deeply damaging reverse, it is also home to the excellent Tbilisi International Festival of Theatre. I was pleased to be invited, for a third time, to a festival which incorporates work by some of the world’s leading theatre makers, as well as a showcase of Georgian stage drama.

My pleasure increased when I discovered that this year’s international programme included A Tempest, presented by the Marin Sorescu National Theatre of Craiova, Romania and directed by the great theatrical auteur Silviu Purcarete. The Romanian director is no stranger to Edinburgh International Festival audiences, having staged his acclaimed productions of Faust and Gulliver’s Travels in 2009 and 2012 respectively.

His rendering of Shakespeare’s last play is, thanks to an outstanding stage design by Dragos Buhagiar, characteristically memorable in its visual conception. The wood-panelled island cell of Prospero, self-taught sorcerer and deposed Duke of Milan, is a derelict, but once opulent, room from the eighteenth century.

Every piece of furniture, from the grand bed to the three-legged armchair, is a broken and dusty shadow of its former self. The creaking wardrobe at the back of the room becomes a magic portal through which Prospero conjures all manner of events, objects, people and supernatural beings.

Purcarete behaves like Prospero himself, reshaping every character as he sees fit. The sorcerer’s beautiful daughter Miranda, for example, is played by a strapping, six-foot tall, male skinhead in a paper dress opposite a female Ferdinand, prince of Naples.

Prospero’s magical sprite Ariel is a wigged fop who could have stepped out of the court of Louis XVI, while the buffoonish, drunken conspirators Stephano and Trinculo are a bowler-hatted comic double act in the Laurel and Hardy mould.

All of which is interesting and visually compelling. However, one can’t help but feel that Purcarete’s “director’s theatre” has descended here into unaccountable self-indulgence. What logic, for example, is there in the actor who plays Miranda doubling up as the enslaved island dweller Caliban?

More problematic still is the director’s puzzling decision to kill Prospero off before the final scene. His great final speech is made to an empty room, then repeated to the assembled characters by the magician’s disembodied ghost.

Visually fascinating, with superb use of music, this Tempest is, for all its flair, not classic Purcarete.

If even an imperfect production by the Romanian master demands one’s attention, so too does Three Sisters, a “choreodrama” (that’s dance to you and me) based upon Chekhov’s play by the Vaso Abashidze theatre company of Tbilisi. Performed to affecting music by Alfred Schnittke, the piece is an often beautiful, wordless rendering of a play of yearning and disappointment.

The costume design is excellent. The titular siblings wear splendid white dresses, the soldiers formal, beige uniforms. The simple set is less impressive, being dominated by somewhat ugly chairs, made mainly of canes.

The choreography, by Konstantin Purtseladze, is similarly uneven. A hip-swinging motif, for the sisters in their happier moments, is repeated more often than it deserves.

The company itself is decidedly mixed, with some performers being noticeably more comfortable dancers than others.

Such shortcomings notwithstanding, there are moments in which the piece articulates the anguished essence of Chekhov’s play. This is particularly true in the beautifully, and painfully, choreographed moment in which Masha is literally caught between her departing lover, army officer Vershinin, and her forgiving husband, the staid teacher Kulygin.

Although the festival is, in general, a good deed in a naughty world, the selection, and indeed special recommendation, of 1945, by  Nodar Dumbadze Professional State Youth Theatre of Tbilisi, has left me astonished and outraged in equal measure. A play aimed at young audiences, this devised work, created by young director Nikoloz Sabashvili, is the most misguided, irresponsible and offensive reflection on the life of Adolf Hitler one could possibly imagine.Tbilisi - 1945

A work of astoundingly vulgar cod psychology, it suggests that more than 15 million people (six million of them Jewish) died in the Nazi Holocaust as a consequence of Hitler’s difficult childhood and youth.

His father (a violent drunk) terrorises him. His mother takes a Jewish lover who is nasty to him. The Jewish girl he falls in love with marries another (Jewish) man. Hitler goes mad with grief and resentment.

Just what Sabashvili thinks Jewish audience members, or, indeed, any decent theatregoers with a sense of political and historical perspective, are supposed to make of this garbage is anyone’s guess.

It is extraordinary that, during this play’s development, no-one in a position of responsibility within the company put a stop to it. It’s more astonishing still that the Georgian critics and showcase selectors thought fit to recommend and programme it.

As the piece comes to its end and (I kid you not) stage smoke is used to stand in for the Zyklon B gas used in the Nazi death chambers, one wonders if this horrible piece has any more awful ideas to offer. Sadly, as, in another moment of dreadful historical reductionism, Hitler transforms into Stalin, we find that it does.

It is genuinely terrifying that anyone could believe that such a dangerous and erroneous account is a good way to educate young people about the Holocaust. I am still shocked that it has appeared in Tbilisi, a city which is deservedly renowned for the quality of its theatre.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 11, 2015

© Mark Brown