In this darkly comic yet grimly serious puppetry production Neville Tranter brings to life Adolf Hitler and his various grotesque associates: a petulant Eva Braun, a slimy Joseph Goebbels and his six ill-fated children, and the monstrous, pig nosed Hermann Goering.
It’s the Fuhrer’s 56th birthday (although, unacceptably, he has only one candle) but also the final moments of Nazis rule, and the sounds of bombs boom overhead, a constant reminder of the impending fate of these grim characters.
The piece juggles with imagery both disturbing and hilarious. The puppets are grotesque and often uncannily expressive. Braun especially is carried with a lolloping glide and the subtle movements in her arch glances directed at the quivering Goebbels are particularly entertaining. It’s massively impressive considering Tranter, standing between them, awkward and humble, acts for the three of them.
The performance hangs in many ways on the part Tranter plays as Hitler’s agitated servant Heinz Linge, the sympathetic and human centre of the piece. He picks up the limp shells of human beings that are Adolf and his companions, animates them, then without artifice leaves them to hang, lifeless on the stage. In this way Hitler himself is ever present, staring but slumped and increasingly crumpled in defeat, irrevocably powerless.
With a growing sense of absurdity the banal goings on are broken by the entrance of a haunting, skull-faced magician, a loud, boisterous character with burning red eyes and gold teeth set in constant grin. He promises magic, but fails to retrieve the bird from his top hat, and breaks the anticipation with ridiculous and bathetic, “I forget, I forget.” Leaving the puppet backstage Tranter returns as Linge, seemingly disgusted or shocked by his own creation. He’s a recurring figure and his return is equally dreaded and relished as gradually he embodies the personification of death, creeping into the bunker to steal away the children who wait motionless to the right of the stage throughout, scrawny, makeshift waifs of wood and rope, forever still.
Some elements of the production don’t quite mesh. The opening for example, establishes a relationship between puppeteer and puppet; without the unmistakable moustache, ‘an actor’ in his own right, he’s understandably discontented to play ‘him’. This intriguing relationship isn’t brought up again, however and lacks closure or commitment.
With its harsh, dynamic shifts in tone the piece can sometimes seem to be disjointed, but it’s all performed with vivacity, and it’s undoubtedly an impressive feat for Tranter.