It wouldn’t be quite fair to describe the latest experimental project at the Sam Wanamaker as ‘like Disney’s Fantasia’ – as I did to my partner before we sat down in the dimly candlelit indoor playhouse. In my defense, I was rather at a loss for conjuring a popular comparable piece of art, besides my childhood experiences of Fantasia (and its bizarre sequel), and animated narrations of children’s books with classical music set behind them. As I’ve learned from those experiences, the idea of movement, mood, and narrative blending in with music has the potential for elegance, poetry, and uniqueness – all of which the puppet-narrative performance set to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons at the Wanamaker meets and exceeds.
The narrative presented in music and puppetry is straightforward: a tale of love, loss, regrowth and recovery, set to the four movements of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons concerto. Yet it is best to describe The Four Seasons: A Reimagining in language for a dance performance, particularly ballet, focusing on movement, breath, choreography, and composition. The set itself is a richly gorgeous Baroque space: flaky gold-leaf coats the banisters and set walls of the playhouse, offset by rich, deep autumnal colours. Four curved tables are also covered in flaked gold, acting as the puppets’ stage, often rearranged, lifted, and turned upside down to transform the puppets’ environment. At particularly emotional moments of joy or fear, the tables even illuminated from within, giving the space a magical feel.
The puppets themselves are simple in appearance, but rich and complex in emotional performance (and presumably in puppeteering). Five puppeteers work together in a choreographed dance of their own to perform the Bunraku-inspired mannequin puppets. As blank wooden figurines, the subtlety of emotion and expression that can be conveyed through a simple, small gesture of the head, or through the simultaneous movement of the puppeteer’s breathing and the puppet’s is incredible. Fluttering pieces of blue paper are twisted and transformed to become ghostly figures of the child’s memory, pushing the child joyfully on a swing. A golden path appears before the child, and each puppeteer emerges from beneath the tables, twisting and turning into tree branches. Everything felt imaginative, like a child finding 1000 ways to have fun with a cardboard box.
There are beautiful visual motifs to complement Vivaldi’s music: the revolving tables transforming with the passage of time; gorgeous red-gold flowers that bloomed in ‘Spring’ return as tumbling autumn leaves; an extremely expressive cat which looks as if it came to life from a dry crinkled leaf always comes back to cause mischief. Its irritated tail-swishing and obsessive preening are particularly endearing. But most powerful of all is the stillness between movements. While the transition from the opening music into the full piece was sometimes filled with what felt like dead air as the puppeteers stood to watch the musicians above, the stillness of the puppets in the silence of one movement ending and another beginning were moments in which I realized how deeply I had been pulled in. Watching a small, child puppet on its hands and knees, heaving with deep breaths and shallow sobs, the puppeteer alongside it, breathing these emotions is equal parts painful and magnificent.
Max Richter’s reinterpretation of The Four Seasons as a Baroque six-piece concerti is the heartbeat. The Baroque instruments, including the harpsichord and authentic 17th century violins, give a richness to the music that vibrate through the listener. One of the many benefits to staging this in an Elizabethan playhouse is being able to watch the musicians perform, and I could see the passion and exuberance emanating from everyone. Another benefit is the clarity and sharpness of the unamplified instruments filling the cavernous theatre. With such clear tones, I could feel and hear the depth and timbre of the music, and even hazard a guess with my untrained ear at which elements of the original Richter has reimagined.
At all levels, the production certainly challenged me: my body’s aches and stiffness definitely overcame me at certain points, thanks to the authentic bench seating, my ears were forced to listen, not anticipate sound, and watching required a wholly different vocabulary – namely that of observation, stillness, rather than analysis. When my attention drifted, I could watch the people around me moving gently to the rhythm, or sitting and watching intently. And I’ll never use Fantasia as my primary example of visual-classical performance again, not when this has dramatically transformed for me what is possible with the medium.
Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons: A Reimagining is on at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 21 April 2018. Click here for more details.