When I was in Palermo earlier this year I quickly discovered that the need-to-do thing cultural thing was a spot of Sicilian puppet theatre, but in the end I never went, for when I saw the puppets – they were everywhere, displayed in shop windows and cafes – I found their spindly and inanimate forms rather unnerving. They creeped me out; so instead I invested my energies in gelato consumption and crossing the street without being mown down by unobservant motorists (a sport in itself in Sicily) and enjoyed a pleasantly puppet-free holiday.
I’ve always found puppets a little upsetting. There is a shop somewhere in Clapham full of the things and every time I walk pass it I imagine them coming to life after dark and maybe holding little puppet ceremonies in which they sacrifice a Care Bear or some such thing to their little puppet gods.
But now having had, not one, but two positive puppet experiences in one weekend, I realise how wrong I was, for it is not the puppets per se that I dislike, for when brought to life by skilled performers they are quite amazing – I understand that now, the subtlety and precision in both shows was astonishing – it’s just when the puppets are vacant and lifeless that they make me shudder.
The first show on my puppet double bill was Blind Summit’s Low Life at the BAC, which I saw as a kind of primer to On Emotion which opens at Soho Theatre this week and also features their work, and also because I wanted to address the whole puppet thing, to look it square in its (creepy, painted) face. This was a slight but very enjoyable show. Apparently taking its inspiration from the writings of Charles Bukowski, it was set in dive bar populated by both people and puppets. But really the setting was just an excuse to string together a series of sketches: a character called Kevin (portrayed by a puppet who is the spit of Kevin Spacey) fights with his wife for one last drink and ends up performing a balletic airborne duet with an empty glass; an elderly cleaning lady gets worked up about the outcome of the book she is reading; a faded star of the stage smokes a cigarette and makes a pass at the bartender; a tiny plumber embarks on a Mission: Impossible-style adventure to fix a leaking pipe; and 1940s B-movie is re-enacted using a series of little blue men.
With the exception of the last sketch the puppeteers are always visible, there is no attempt to conceal them or distract from their manipulations. With up to three people controlling each puppet, the way in which the performers create the movements becomes as fascinating as the puppets themselves. There’s no plot, hardly any dialogue and for a show of an hour, it felt a bit stretched, but within it there were some very tender, funny and magical moments.
The same – well, the tender, funny and magical bit – can also be said of puppet show number two: War Horse at the National Theatre, which I finally caught on its Sunday matinee. There’s probably not a lot I can say about this that hasn’t been said already, as I’m rather late to the party on this one, but oh my, weren’t the horses amazing: cloth and wood and wire, but so wonderfully life-like. From the stiff-legged, Bambi-like foal to the magnificent adult animal (when Albert first jumped into the saddle there was an audible ripple of excitement). Yes, it’s kind of baggy plot-wise and veers towards sentiment at the end, but given its source material (Michael Morpurgo’s novel is narrated by the horse, something the play has not tried to replicate) I think this is acceptable. In the closing scenes, the whole theatre seemed to be physically willing this horse to stay alive and the moment when one of the horses dies and the puppeteers (who again are visible, though never distracting) tumble out of the animal and slowly, respectfully walk away, it was as its spirit was quietly departing and it almost, almost made me cry a little bit.
Describing the production to a friend today I was searching for a photo online to illustrate my babble, but the horses invariably looked a little rubbish in two dimensions, you really had to be there to see them move, to see them whinny and buck and stamp and nuzzle: to see them live. I found the look of the production also quite powerful. Rae Smith’s design fitted the piece perfectly, the sketches flickering in the background were very effective and, in the trench scene, it featured one of the best uses of the Olivier revolve I’ve seen in a long time. Being Remembrance Sunday, the cast all returned to take their bows sporting poppies, which was a lovely, thoughtful touch and the play itself made me think about the First World War in a way I’d not really done so before, the devastation of land as well as life, Europe as a battlefield, for once the trenches and the pain and the mess of it all felt geographically as well as historically grounded in my mind.
I won't say I'm totally over the puppet thing but I am dealing with my issues (I will still be keeping my distance from that shop in Clapham though, I'm not that brave).