“With one or two exceptions – the late Gerry Anderson’s immortal Thunderbirds and Punch and Judy shows on the beach – I cordially loathe puppetry. Puppets generally strike me as both creepy and profoundly irritating, and when they are imported into stage productions with living, breathing actors, it’s usually a recipe for a peculiarly noxious form of theatrical preciousness.”
If there was one critic unlikely to have haunted the surrounds of North Street and the Bristol Festival of Puppetry last week, it was the Telegraph’s Charles Spencer. A confessed puppet-loather, Spencer certainly did not have his convictions overturned by Tom Morris’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, back in March. And whilst I would agree with Spencer that the Bristol Old Vic did not, on that occasion, showcase the best of what the genre has to offer, I would petition him not to give up on puppets just yet.
In fact, just to level the confessional playing field, I have always loved puppets. Indeed, I have even added to the world of the ‘creepy and profoundly irritating’ and made a few in my time. The shark-on-a-stick with its jammy red mouth was an early triumph, and laid the foundations for the almost-lifesize wicker sea manatee.
Joy, then, has characterised my relationship with puppetry and I trekked to the Tobacco Factory with my Manga eyes glinting. On Wednesday, after seeing the Paper Cinema’s Odyssey, the orbs continued to sparkle and I left feeling like I had rode Totoro over a rainbow. However on Monday – when I saw Theatre Témoin’s The Fantasist – I left wanting to cry and continued to want to cry, and wrap the lead character, Louise, up in a tartan blanket, all through Tuesday. The shows at the festival of puppetry were subtle, beautiful and heartbreaking. They demonstrated great skill and artistry in the creation of the puppets – better than the sea manatee – and also how far puppetry can be from the emotional void of ‘Punch and Judy shows on the beach’.
The Fantasist is a show about Louise’s experience of Bi-polar disorder and the puppets on stage all represent the little demons that come out of her mind and disrupt her attempts at painting. Some of the characters are rather cute, like the mini artist’s mannequin that squeaks and bounces like a sped-up version of Morph. Others are, at times, very funny. In particular, the two faces stuck in the wardrobe – surely inspired by the doorknockers in Labyrinth? – who sing their own disfigurement blues. The man in the blue coat, to whom Louise is enthralled, is unsettling and violently disruptive. Watching him is a very similar experience to watching your best friend dating a total dick, but being confined to doing nothing but bleakly smiling at him over ‘a nice drink’, hoping that she will see the light before you have to do anything.
Louise, unfortunately, does not see the light and, despite attempts by a psychiatric nurse to look after her, evaporates away at the end of the production. I truly wish she didn’t. Even now, as I sit at home feeling the first new-term nods of Autumn come through the glass, I wish I knew Louise was wrapped up safely in my bed and that I could cook her eggs and take care of her, like a child.
So after sniffing through Tuesday, The Paper Cinema’s Odyssey was a like my own bi-polar shifting of moods. It is not, on its own, universally happy – it too has moments of eyelash-fluttering blues, particularly regarding Poor Old Penelope. However, the joy of it comes from simply being exposed to the beautiful artwork and house-of-cards skill involved in its production.
Paper Cinema, with their matchy-matchy colour ensembles, Melodicas and beards are like what American Apparel would be like, if only American Apparel could remove itself from the semi-porno wilderness it currently resides in. Or, put another way, experiencing Paper Cinema is like walking in to Urban Outfitters, but genuinely discovering something utterly unique and beautiful, without the corporate filter.
The drawings of Nicholas Rawling and the little flashes of humour – the eating of the sun cows, especially – make Paper Cinema’s re-telling of the Odyssey particularly brilliant. Moreover, it proved once again the ‘Some stories never grown old’ theory or, rather, that beauty and storytelling are timeless. It was a shame, in some ways, that it was squeezed in to the tiny Brewery theatre, as it definitely has the propensity to fill a much bigger space. Having also experienced the version of a A Midsummer Night’s Dream that Spencer disliked so thoroughly, I think it would be great if Paper Cinema and that production switched venues. The Old Vic, then, could be filled with the souring notes from the Wine Dark Sea score, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream would be forced to strip back and, perhaps, recover some of the magic of War Horse in doing so.
The other production that could take something from The Paper Cinema’s Odyssey was Killing Roger by Sparkle and Dark. Overall, this production was affective and, with regards to the puppet, very cleverly created. However, the only thing missing was a sense of timelessness, particularly when, through repeated references to Billy’s philosophy course, it was hinted at. Instead, the play felt almost too timely or too specific to our age. This is not entirely a criticism, as it is our age which, through scientific advances, made the simple act of dying so difficulty. However, had this timeliness been augmented with more ageless debates on life and death, this production would have felt denser and also like it had a longer shelf-life. (As an aside, I feel unable not to mention that, in their after-play talk, the Sparkle and Dark company came across as a sincerely lovely group of people.)
For a true puppet-hater, perhaps only a turn on the psychoanalyst’s couch will do the trick, but for those simply unexposed to what this art form can produce, the Festival of Puppetry 2013 was a week-long demonstration of why one should not be too fast to write it off.
Read the Exeunt interview with Bristol Festival of Puppetry co-director Rachel McNally.