Cardboard citizens wave cardboard placards of protest on the streets of a cardboard city. A series of ominous cardboard tanks appear and a rebellion is turned to dust. This is one of several memorable images in Tortoise in a Nutshell’s potent puppet theatre show, a series of vignettes about children and armed conflict.
A framing device shows a young woman – a flame-haired puppet in a flannel shirt – sorting through the possessions of her war photographer father. This leads in to a series of snapshots of conflict zones, from Sarajevo to Syria: black and white sketches, like cells from a graphic novel, twisting across the stage, captured and fixed into place. There’s more than a touch of Ari Folman’s animated documentary Waltz with Bashir to the imagery, the interplay between the stark black lines and the things they depict.
A sequence in which a tiny puppet child plays games in a sandpit, laughing as he makes sand castles with a miniature bucket while all the time the sound of gunfire rings out in the background, is the closest it gets to overt sentiment. Elsewhere the piece is more intricate and original in the stories it tells. A one-time child soldier for the Khmer Rouge is shown making amends for his past by digging up land-mines that he once laid and founding an orphanage. This is all depicted through shadow puppetry, the images appearing on a series of screens: a hand, a boot, a mine concealed in the long grass.
For the most part the three performers are silent and what dialogue we hear is pre-recorded. The combination of these voices and the score is incredibly effective, adding to the evocative nature of the piece. The war photographer speaks to his daughter from various far off places, wishing he could be home with her but feeling the need to stay put and to record the things he sees.
Not everything works: a sequence in which two of the performers play child-like war games, wielding invisible weapons and spurting invisible blood, is perhaps too obvious a response to the subject matter, especially given the subtlety of some of the other material. As with many devised pieces of this kind, there are issues with structural clarity, but in terms of technical accomplishment and imaginative power, it’s an impressive achievement.