Puppets are subversive. They may be carved of wood but like most human beings, they only come to life when their strings are pulled. Egads! Puppets are sinister. An old sock can come alive when someone shoves their hand up it and talks squeaky. Some kids were scared witless by Shari Lewis (for those who remember the 50's kid show) . Puppets come with dementedly jolly jingles, rictus grins and implied menace. If the fairy can make Pinocchio into a "real boy" can real boys be turned into marionettes?
Perhaps that's why puppets have existential angst. They remind us that we too are toys that can be manipulated by others. So puppets pack a punch when it comes to theatre. For thousands of years story tellers have used puppets to illustrate their art. Unreality is part of the magic. So when puppets invade theatre and music, they add extra dimensions.
This week Philip Glass's new symphony had its premiere at the Proms. Nice, because it works the way Buddhist chant works, creating a state between consciousness. On the other hand, you wish there was something to look at to concentrate the mind. That's perhaps why his Satyagraha at the ENO was brilliant. The repetitive music evoked the relentless struggle of India's ground-down masses. But the puppets! Huge, towering marionettes who walked like giants, acting out the ancient sagas of Hindu gods. They injected a whole new level into the opera, expanding its meaning. Gandhi was a little man but what he achieved was heroic. That memorable production was created by Improbable, a truly innovative theatre group that combines puppets, circus, athletics, and visual images. So much potential, so many possibilties. Theatre, opera and music directors take note - Improbable is a fantastic resource.
Even more recently, we saw how circus skills can save an unstageable opera like Saariaho's L'Amour de loin. Read about that HERE.
And now, Monteverdi's Return of Ulysses gets the puppet treatment at the Edinburch Festival. The singers will be shadowed by huge puppets, operated on sticks like Indonesian wayang where puppets enact ancient sagas. The puppeteers are Handspring Puppet Company. This Ulysses has been seen in France, Belguim, New York and Luxembourg. Read about it HERE with photos and production shots.
"While working on Ulisse I had occasion to take my five year-old nephew for a chest x-ray. The child was stood at the machine and positioned using a video screen next to the x-ray machine. On the video screen you could see the moving skeleton of the child, the incredibly fine and fragile collarbones, the thin pylon of the spine and in the jaw not just the child’s teeth, but also the adult teeth still on the bone, waiting to erupt." says the designer, William Kentridge. Read the whole article, it's very detailed and different. Baroque is fantasy, the ultimate union of artifice and illusion, referencing myth and human concepts. So Monteverdi and puppets could be made for each other.
Coming up next : Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus at the Proms. The one original performance, in 1986, was staged with puppets: parallel figures shadowing the spoken and sung roles. Birtwistle's Punch and Judy is about puppets, the strange British idea that children should be entertained by scenes of domestic violence and police corruption. Puppetry as a tool for evil indoctrination. That's why the opera upsets me so much. That's what Birtwistle was trying to show. Watch this space.