A puppeteer‘s tools are her hands. Though they are often draped in black, hidden behind figures, or twisting at the end of a marionette string, they are the ever present manipulators, contorted around rods, swaying with life, and flickering with emotion. In Field of Memory and In the Zone of Stones, two pieces by Mischa Twitchin and Penny Francis, the hands are unveiled, amputated from the figure and placed centre stage.
Presented as part of Show Time, Present Attempt’s curated collection of in-progress and completed performance work, both pieces are built around a spine of Samuel Becketts dense prose. The first; Field of Memory, is a solo performance by Mischa Twitchin, founding member of the Shunt collective. Minimal in production, but complex in structure, it consists of fragments of Becketts What Where, accompanied by Schubert’s Winterreise. Its lone image is that of a pair of hands, grappling with the back of a wooden chair. Although impregnably layered, in practice this piece is a short but hypnotic experiement with text and image, a subtle subversion of stage language. It serves as a prelude to In The Zone of Stones, Twitchin‘s collaboration with Puppet-Centre Trust founder and long-serving champion of puppetry, Penny Francis.
In The Zone of Stones, like Field of Memory, is led by one of Beckett’s texts. This time it is taken from Ill Seen, Ill Said, a raw portrait of an ageing woman living alone in barren land. In the Zone of Stones is another solo performance, but this time a rare stage appearance from Francis. She sits centre-stage, her hands resting upon a worn suitcase, as Beckett and Bach fill the air with potent images. Her hands, disembodied by a corridor of light, move across the suitcase, sometimes tapping out the accompinying snatches of piano, sometimes pulling at stiches and edges. It is a performance of immense focus and detail that, rather than illustrating the text, reveals it. There‘s a moving delicacy to the piece, as Francis’ well-worn hands cross the suitcase that, in Becketts words “dint, by dint, her little weight has grooved”. Other objects are drawn out of the suitcase by words, a handcherchief for “tears”, a mirror for “eye”, but they serve as support for the puppeteer‘s hands, rather than objects to bring life to. It‘s in this manner that the piece reveals its quiet subversion, placing the puppeteer above their objects, concerned with animating words, not matter.
For those who know of Penny Francis, and her tireless support of puppetry, this piece also carries extra weight. By placing her performance at its centre, it gives a rarely found visibility to the ideas of age and experience that theatre usually prefers to keep backstage. Here both the puppeteer and her age are starkly visible, giving a fragile, but vital life to every moment. Uwaveringly focussed for its half hour running time, In The Zone of Stones is an important piece of performance, encompassing both complex ideas of stage language and a sophisticated staging of context. But what keeps your attention for those thirty minutes in the dark, is it’s stark and mortal image of age, that depicts a life as fragile as that which the puppeteers’ hands give.