Wattle and Daub use simple techniques in surprising combinations to tell an odd story that is deeply felt.
This ‘Chamber Opera for Puppets’ – a scratch preview of a show that won’t be ready until summer 2013, performed here as part of Bristol Ferment – employs two puppeteers and two vocalists in understated black clothes, caps and socks to tell the story of Tarrare, a bizarre ravenous character who desperately eats everything in sight. Thrown out by his parents, he finds a place in a Freak Show, eating corks, apples and snakes and regurgitating the cores and bones.
The piece is richly layered, with the simple puppetry at the centre, sufficient to tell the story, engage and satisfy the audience. The puppeteers are calm and completely focussed on their basic puppets, who through the nurturing of the puppets bring them to life, their papier mâché faces seemingly expressive beside the still puppeteers’ expressionless faces. Tarrare’s desperation, his urgency and compulsion are keenly indicated through the slight movements of his puppeteer (Tobi Poster). By contrast the song, the opera, is not part of the puppet but an addition, a narrator, a construct that deepens the offering to the audience, giving us more ways to access this weird character.
The explicit, conversational lyrics are deliciously at odds with their operatic format; the audience laughs at the idea of Tarrare’s wide gullet, pus-filled body and terrible stench, though it is not meant to be funny. The violent autopsy of a puppet is also no joke, and neither is the image of a wide-mouthed, wide-eyed puppet chewing on guts, but we can stomach the idea when it is this simply presented.
Tom Poster’s lyrical piano soundtrack perfectly underscores the work, holding the audience’s emotions and carrying them with it, dramatic when required, hauntingly sad when required. Projections form a backdrop; drawings, medical diagrams, scene notes and occasional comedy gore, adding another layer to the story, taking this true tale of Tarrare further from reality and rooting it further into storybook-land: a horrible history or morality story.
Somehow this company, with a devising period of three weeks, have created magic through the careful concoction of puppetry and opera. The gruesome becomes fascinating, the disgusting becomes acceptable, the foul is humorous and the desperate is mesmerising, almost enchanting. In choosing this particular theme of human appetite, Wattle and Daub push the capacity of the puppets – playing with their ability to represent real, visceral human beings whilst continuing to acknowledge the fact that they are only puppets – a caricature, an idea. A couple of years ago fellow Bristolian puppeteers Pickled Image created a memorable adaptation of Knut Hamsen’s Hunger, in which the bizarre lead character starves himself, going slowly mad in his lonely garret. The depiction of human needs by a moulded puppet were striking in a similar way and I feel sure that Wattle and Daub were inspired by that work to look further at stories involving unusual bodies and physical processes for puppet work.
I can imagine the rest of the story, how Tarrare will be hopeful of acceptance as he goes off to join the French army in the role of secret-document-swallower. How his freakshow friends Marie and Celeste the Siamese twins will turn out to be right, and he will be used by the army, not hailed a hero as promised; how it will all end terribly badly, with more gore, stench, medical disbelief and ultimate loneliness. It will work tremendously well. A full length opera to accompany this will be a challenge but a real triumph if Wattle and Daub succeed in creating it.