What happens if you invite Edvard Munch, Vincent Van Gogh, and an opinionated art collector to be guests in your popular prime-time TV chatshow? Well, a certain amount of chaos can be expected.
The creative team behind Ulrike Quade Company’s The Writer, an emotionally and intellectually stark plunge into a dedicated but morally torn reader’s mind (based on the controversial figure of Knut Hamsun), returns to Bristol Festival of Puppetry with the UK premiere of their new work, Munch & Van Gogh: The Scream of the Sunflower.
Written especially for the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Munch’s birth in 1863, the play dramatizes a question that burns in the minds not just of art lovers but of anyone interested in (or simply baffled by) modern-day consumerism: how would figures like Van Gogh (and, for that matter, Kafka, Shakespeare, Mozart and any giant of art, literature, or music) react if confronted with the ruthless, extremely lucrative, arguably questionable, and often insufferably tacky commercialisation of their work?
Moments of confessional clarity are violently juxtaposed with moments of barely controlled hysteria, as the two figures contemplate their successes, failures, and the intense psychological and emotional struggles that have formed an inextricable part of this continuum. There is a certain looseness to the piece, and you do get the sense at times that the characters run riot to an extent much larger than that intended by their creators. This, however, does not detract from the play’s enormous achievement in terms of puppetry work, which hits precisely the right notes in creating larger-than-life figures who are yet paradoxically shrunken and steeped in self-doubt.
Some familiar elements in Ulrike Quade Company’s work recur in The Scream of the Sunflower. The use of multiple puppets of the same character dramatizes the juxtaposition between said character’s younger and older self; simultaneously, by enabling the audience to envisage a character’s lifespan, the younger/older puppets actualise the substance and depth associated with an entire lifetime. Furthermore, rather than attempting to extract the puppeteers from the onstage goings-on, the play acknowledges and incorporates them in the action ~for instance, the presenter turns to Ulrike’s character when confused, as if demanding an explanation. By setting life-size Munch and Van Gogh puppets against the two dainty actresses and the small puppets of the presenter and art collector guest, the play accentuates the mythical dimensions these figures and their work have acquired in popular imagination.
At the same time, the degree of mastery with which the Munch and Van Gogh puppets have been created renders, with excruciating starkness, the minutiae of inner turmoil and outward struggle the two were faced with throughout their lives. Forget the unchanging faces of conventional puppets: Maria Landgraf and Ulrike Quade have managed to imbue their puppets with a plasticity and textured skin surface that allow for hauntingly realistic facial movements and expressions. The piercing eyes of the older Van Gogh puppet and the crestfallen countenance of the older Munch puppet are so absorbing that you find yourself leaning forward and peering into their faces, trying to work out what it is they are thinking.
The puppeteering itself is highly accomplished, with Quade and Smits painstakingly effecting even the tiniest shadows of movement: the gentle heaving of a snoring Munch’s back; the tremble in Van Gogh’s fingertips when he’s trying to hide his sobs; the pained, seemingly unconscious headshake of the older Munch watching a traumatic incident from his youth play out in front of his eyes.
With unmistakable class and aplomb, Ulrike Quade Company deliver another astonishing work of high-calibre puppetry. A mournfully chaotic song rich in texture and spectacle, The Scream of the Sunflower confidently affirms the explosive power of contemporary puppet-theatre.