This dense and often very silly piece of handmade puppet theatre is the work of Birmingham company, Stan’s Cafe. Surrounded by hundreds of props made from cardboard and painted wood, the titular three Cardinals, in their red gowns, are assisted by a Muslim stage manager in telling a selected history of the world from the creation story to the apocalypse. The audience are able to see into the wings, which sit on either side of the puppet-house which stands in the centre of the stage, beautifully draped in red velvet curtains
Without a solid knowledge of the Bible, the piece can be hard to follow. Luckily, I was able to fill in a few missing references afterwards, assisted by an exceptionally well-read friend. In fact one of the most enjoyable things about a work like this is the way it inspires its audience to become more familiar with the stories and images on which the piece draws. If I hadn’t I’d never have come across Francis Bacon’s 1953 terrifying yet beautiful painting of Pope Innocent X, an image which has haunted me ever since.
The Cardinals is purposefully chaotic in style, both visually and theoretically; within the piece are finely detailed layers about the relationship between these men and their faith. There are undercurrents of friction and power struggle there too. The character of the Muslim stage manager provides stability and there is a wonderful moment when he goes off to pray, leaving the technically-clueless Cardinals to work out how to use the cassette player on their own.
The humour tails off a little in the second half as the piece becomes more pointed; the machinery of the puppetry becomes even more frantic and we are taken through the Crusades towards darker scenes of planes on fire and buses exploding. As in the first half, these scenes play out in silence and it is here where we really feel the weight of that silence, and find ourselves listening for the ‘message’.
The Cardinals acts as a provocation about faith’s place in society over the centuries. I suspect the intention here is to gently suggest that, on matters such as this, we should be listening to our own internal voices when they ask: ‘what is faith to me? In what or whom do I place my faith? What is happening in the (faithful or faithless) world around me?’
As the piece stands, there are certain scenes that feel too long, others that feel too muddy and where a little more clarity would be welcome, but these are things that could well evolve as the show tours. At its heart, it is a wonderfully thoughtful and intelligent piece, alive with colour and theatricality, childlike humour and troubled humanity.
The Cardinals will be at the Drum Theatre, Plymouth 22nd to 26th May 2012.