“Beckett is very puppety.”
Blind Summit’s existential puppetry triptych, The Table, has evolved as a piece since last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. For a start, it’s no longer a triptych – or it wasn’t when I saw it at the Brighton Fringe – it’s a two-parter (the sequence with the flying Patrick Stewart heads has gone) and Moses, the three-man Bunraku puppet ‘with detachable parts’, is slowly taking over the show.
“We wanted to do a show with a puppet on a table,” explains Blind Summit’s co-founder Mark Down in a backstage office at Soho Theatre, where the show is currently playing. “We usually begin with a theme and an image rather than a story and then there is a process of improvising and stretching. But the intention was always to create a show about a puppet on a table.”
The resulting puppet, Moses, a foot high figure with a wizened cardboard face, a pliable fabric body and a gruff, weary demeanour is, in every sense, a character. Down had originally thought that it might be funny if the puppet gave “a workshop about himself rather than me explaining how he worked.” The company were also interested in Beckett, particularly the visual imagery Beckett employs in his work, the pots, the disembodiment, which Down finds “spare and odd – and puppety.” What started as a ten minute sequence grew into something bigger and is growing still.
“We thought that it could be an amazing thing if a puppet could hold a whole show.” This idea of how much narrative weight a puppet can take is one to which Down keeps returning. At one point they considered developing the character of the Cleaner from their earlier show, Low Life, a Bukowski-inspired series of vignettes set in a dive bar. Moses – or a version of him at least – first appeared in Blind Summit’s 2009 production of Orwell’s 1984, the company’s most text-based work to date. There, his was in essence a cameo role, but in The Table he takes the lead.
Blind Summit was formed in 1997 by Down and Nick Barnes. They specialise in Bunraku-style puppetry, a traditional Japanese form of puppetry given a contemporary twist. Down trained as a doctor and then retrained as an actor at Central before falling into puppetry “by accident really.” It wasn’t until he met Barnes and collaborated on a piece called Mr China’s Son that it clicked. (He had seen Philippe Genty’s show Derives at Edinburgh “and I loved it but I didn’t know it was puppetry.”) Together they devised material using the “five extraordinary puppets which Nick had made, and half a ton of rice.” Afterwards they continued to work with one another: “we wrote manifestos for the future of puppetry and made silly websites. Slowly it took over more and more of our lives.”
As well as creating their own pieces, the company also create puppets and puppet sequences for other companies including Complicite, ENO and the National Theatre. They created a whole menagerie for His Dark Materials, a hauntingly fragile puppet child for Anthony Minghella’s production of Madam Butterfly, and a terrifying skeletal canine for an opera based on Bulgakov’s A Dog’s Heart. When working with these other companies the process is similar to when they’re creating their own material, it just exists “within a bigger process.” Collaborations, Down explains “are a chance to use what we know,” to exploit the lessons learned from their own work, though he stresses, “with our own work there’s the luxury of getting into the room and going ‘I haven’t got a clue how we’re going to this’ with other companies you can’t do that.” Though, that said, the jobs they tend to take are the “jobs that we can’t resist and the jobs we can’t resist are usually the ones were we have no idea how we’re going to pull it off.”