This review was written for Animations Online
‘Schicklgruber… Alias Adolf Hitler’ tells the notorious story of the final moments of Hitler, Eva Braun, Goebbels et al. It’s a one-man show – in this instance played out on a large stage at the Traverse, Edinburgh – with Neville Tranter of Stuffed Puppet operating and voicing every single, despicable character. It’s a huge feat.
Tranter uses large, hand operated muppet-style puppets, with exaggerated features and face splitting mouths. The purpose of the production seems to be to show the bunker’s infamous inhabitants as utterly ridiculous. The play is characterised by moments of ear splitting hysteria and ones of deathly silence.
The way the puppets behave is toe curling. Eva Braun minces and whinnies like the worst kind of fading screen star, and flirts sickeningly with Goebbels over illicit cigarettes. Göring moves about on wheels and has hot air balloon proportions. Blondie the dog is fixed in a permanent pose of cross-eyed shock. Even Goebbels’ children are vile.
Death is imagined as a towering drag queen swathed in yellow, with huge hands and toilet roll thick fingers. She begins as a children’s entertainer, appearing at intervals with magic tricks and songs, but becomes increasingly sinister. Her final encounter with Hitler is both silly and appalling.
Hitler is the other characters’ main concern but he actually has a surprisingly minor role, talking relatively little. He is just as likely to offer us a long gloomy silence as a violent outburst. Tranter plays Linge, the only human character and a long-suffering servant. Linge is the one we might have some sympathy for, as he stalks about the bunker carrying out mundane and diabolic errands.
A maximum of two puppets can be operated at one time and they litter the stage when not in use. Their lifeless bodies are a constant presence, which is a distraction. When they are in use, Tranter is so divided between the characters that he isn’t able to give each puppet his full focus and so imbue them with believable life. This does, however, contribute to the sense of impending doom and neatly prefigures their fates.
‘Schicklgruber… Alias Adolf Hitler’ is an odd play about an infamous episode. It’s brave to tackle something so well-known but in doing so you need something original to offer. This play doesn’t shed any new light on Hitler and his cronies; reinventing them as a motley crew of crackpot puppets isn’t enough.
This review was written for Animations Online
Spiralling alcoholism, game hunting, neglect and gardening are the themes that ebb and flow through ‘Consuming Spirits’, a feature-length animation shot frame by frame on 16mm. Director Chris Sullivan’s epic project is advertised as being near 15 years in the making, something that weighs on the viewer’s mind as the film is drawn out over two and a quarter hours. It makes sense on the Manipulate Festival’s programme but does demand a lot from its audience.
The film – framed as a “parable in five parts” – has been designed to discomfort. The story is an odd one of physically and emotionally unattractive characters, whose lives are increasingly sinister. The main protagonists – a herbalist radio host, a frustrated newspaper woman, a disturbed nun, an Irish musician, a man in a deer suit and a heavily self-tattooed teenager – are all gradually linked together, in a complicated family tragedy of faithlessness and mental illness. A local radio station and newspaper (‘The Daily Suggester’) help create the links.
‘Consuming Spirits’ features a combination of stop motion techniques. The majority of the film is played out using two dimensional, hinged paper puppets, but also features lots of sketchy grayscale pencil drawn animation and 3D model based work, using toy cars and cardboard box houses. It also brings old photographs to life, giving voices to anonymous characters frozen in time. Everything is hand crafted, rather than computer generated. It has an appealing homemade quality that is never amateurish.
The aesthetic is an intentionally ugly one, with painfully honest close ups of ravaged human faces and sagging bodies. The puppets’ paper eyes have incredible life, and are often bloodshot and rolling. The action mainly takes place at dusk or night, and it’s as though the camera has a gloom filter on it or one that creates a drunken, teetering haze. ‘Consuming Spirits’ creates a powerful and penetrating atmosphere using the simplest of materials. It’s an impressive animated achievement, but one spoiled by the film’s length. Two hours in and counting, it starts to feel self-indulgent.
This review was written for Animations Online
What do you get if you cross a black and white Hollywood movie with a busy 1950s office and a paper doll activity book? You get ‘Papercut’ – a two dimensional romantic adventure that unfurls chaotically across a stationery strewn desktop. Already a firm festival favourite, the Israeli actress Yael Rasooly has revived her loveable low-fi show for this year’s Manipulate, playing at the Traverse in Edinburgh.
Rasooly greets her audience as they arrive and find their seats, with warm welcomes and prickly asides delivered from her Anglepoise lamp lit desk. The beginning of the main feature is indicated with a cut to black, the Twentieth Century Fox title drum rolls and a quick flash of Rasooly roaring inside a paper cut out rosette. The movie theme is set.
‘Papercut’ is about the daydreams of Miss Ruth Spencer, a frustrated secretary who fantasises about an affair with her indifferent but demanding boss. Her story unfolds after office hours, and is told using pop-up books and paper cut outs of glamorous film stars. The puppetry is purposefully simplistic and childlike – Rasooly isn’t a master manipulator – but the effect is quirky, creative and fun. Surely nobody flicks through an expanding file with as much style as Miss Spencer, or can imbue fusty office documents with as much hapless life.
Rasooly is a songstress and a comedienne as well as a storyteller, and her one-woman show is highly entertaining, warts and all. She improvises around mishaps with much panache and always with a twinkle in her eye. When she spits out a chewed up paper romantic lead with more strength than usual, she is quick to recover the soggy specimen from the audience member’s lap and thrust an apologetic bottle of Scotch into their arms instead.
Flat black and white paper may seem like a limited medium to work with but Rasooly reveals its potential. What other material allows you to rip off your protagonists’ heads or push out their eyes with such ease? Combined with the appealing 1940s and 50s aesthetic and croons that are so popular at the moment, this is a long form cabaret-like skit that is an easy joy to watch.
This review was written for Animations Online
‘Savanna, A Possible Landscape’ is a performance about a broken piano. It’s also a performance about wanting to pull something apart and assemble the pieces into something new. And, like all good puppetry, it’s about that quirky impulse of ours to imbue inanimate objects with life. Except in Amit Drori’s world, objects aren’t just given life by puppeteers; their movements are enhanced and extended by radio-controlled mechanics.
The creatures that inhabit the Savanna – a place that springs from a boy’s jealous relationship with his mother’s old piano – are a delight that draw audible coos from the audience. Who needs David Attenborough’s new television series about ‘Africa’, when you can witness Amit Drori’s creatures close up? The caterpillar, moth, grasshopper and snails buzz like electric shavers but still somehow convince us they’re real. The combination of hand manipulation and mechanics only serves to make them seem extra alive.
Exotic and far larger, the beautifully crafted tortoise and elephants are more autonomous, operated remotely and able to explore the stage independently. It may be a robot, but the tortoise has a distinct, slightly despairing personality that is communicated through the surprisingly subtle use of a remote control.
Over the course of a daydream-like hour, five performers (including Amit Drori himself) move around a set of simple, pale wooden boxes, interacting convincingly with the creatures. They construct a skeletal tree out of jagged planks and put up a tent. They listen to the radio as they work. Lighting, sound and projections are controlled on stage – the five are both cast and crew – and the equipment they use to produce enlivening effects become props in their own right.
The story is loose and barely there – it would be hard to tell someone what happened afterwards if they asked. Plot is less important than creating a visual impact, and the narrator (booming and recorded) feels distant from the action. Rather than a play in the traditional sense, this is animated sculpture, a place of both possibility and artificiality, a zoo. ‘Savanna, A Possible Landscape’ is fascinating and also rather odd – and so perfect London International Mime Festival fare.
This feature was written for Animations Online
The London International Mime Festival (LIMF) – a long running celebration of visual theatre – returns on the 10 January. Over 18 days, 16 different companies will perform at eight different venues, ranging from the Royal Opera House to the Roundhouse, via Jackson’s Lane and the Soho Theatre.
Forget January blues – the capital is set to blaze with experimental performances ranging from puppetry and object theatre, to acrobatics and animatronics. ‘Mime’ doesn’t come close to describing what’s on offer but it does highlight one important thing – this is about intense, distilled down theatre, often without words. Festival Directors Helen Lannaghan and Joseph Seelig explain what it’s like to be in charge of such a beast.
“What we programme requires the audience’s participation, they have to lean forward into the performances” says Helen, acknowledging the fact that theatre without conventional dialogue often requires audiences to work a bit harder. “And by and large the audience who comes to this sort of thing is willing to do that, not just sit back and say ok, talk to me” adds Joseph. “They are people who are willing to take a risk. If you come to these things with an open mind and open spirit, you are affected intellectually and physically.”
What exactly is a mime festival?
For the uninitiated, the idea of a ‘mime festival’ may conjure up images of Marcel Marceau. “If that’s what people define mime as, that’s fine” says Joseph. “But what we are is a festival of visual theatre. Sometimes these things are more easily defined by what we don’t do. We don’t do dance, we don’t do plays and we don’t do shows which have a text – that’s what we think visual theatre is.”
Joseph has been involved since day one, setting up the festival in 1977 with Nola Rae, a mime / clown. They were motivated by the fact British performers were struggling to get work at home. The first London Mime Festival took place in a single venue – the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone.
“There were 12 companies, all British, and it was a huge success” says Joseph. “That first year we weren’t exactly selective, whoever wanted to be in it basically could be. The work was all silent, that was the idea. Thirty something years later, instead of being in one fringe theatre we’re in eight prestigious central London venues. The work is still marginalised – people don’t see it as mainstream, although in many ways it is. Our idea is that, if you put it in important venues, people will take it much more seriously.”
Puppetry is an important part of what LIMF showcases, with about half the shows featuring it in some way. The directors argue that physical theatre and object theatre make sense together. “To give expression, life and emotion to something that you know logically is string or wood or latex is extraordinary” says Helen. “But you can’t give life to an inanimate object without understanding how the body works and moves. Animating a body and animating an object start from the same place for me.”
How do Helen and Joseph come up with the programme? They may start off with a long list of 200, which needs to be cut down massively. They pick what they think “is good, interesting and current” explains Joseph. “And what we think the audience – who are by and large intelligent – would like, not what they’ve already seen. There are shows we could have that we know would be a box office success but that’s not what we’re funded to do. Although we’re also not funded to go bankrupt, so we calculate risks.”
Helen adds that matching companies with the right venues is a consideration. “We actively collaborate with the venues. This year we needed an open space near central London for Ockham’s Razor (‘Not Until We Are Lost’) and so that’s on at the new Platform Theatre at Central Saint Martin’s in King’s Cross. And there’s also budget to think about. 50% of our income comes through the box office. We have to keep the programme appealing to the public and also take risks at the same time – it’s a juggling act of its very own.”
Animatronics and alter egos
So, what are the trends and highlights we should look out for at LIMF 2013? “Increasingly technology is playing a much greater part in what’s possible” says Helen. “Lighting, live video links, people performing with their alter ego. For instance in ‘Leo’ (by Circle of Eleven), which is going to be in the Purcell Room, the stage is divided in two. There’s live action on one side and the projected image on the other, which is spun through 90 degrees so you see the impossibility and the reality. It’s fascinating. You forget about the reality and start believing that the character really can stand on the wall.”
Joseph is excited by Amit Douri’s ‘Savanna: A Possible Landscape’, where robotic animals and moving sculptures will combine to create a fantastical paradise. “There is a story but it’s very much like standing in an exciting gallery, watching things leap off the wall and out of the frame. He’s quite a pioneer.”
‘Hand Stories’ by Yeung Fai is another performance he says all puppeteers should seek out. “What’s really interesting about Hand Stories is that it’s about a very traditional and classical Chinese puppetry skill but it’s done with smart new video and projection technology, so you’ve got both things. It’s very skilful and very beautifully designed.”
Although Joseph says visual theatre is marginalised, this Christmas mime featured on the Southbank (‘Imagine Toi’) and in the West End (‘The Boy with Tape on his Face’). So, is it actually becoming more mainstream? “People have seen the enormous commercial potential of certain aspects of the sort of work that we do” says Joseph. “It’s not the new rock and roll but visual theatre isn’t some dreadful fringe activity anymore.”
This feature was written for the Guardian
“My projects are never done, they send out ripples that continue, which can’t be anticipated or controlled. That’s how I like it,” says Fritz Haeg, who has made community gardening an art form that galleries find hard to resist. His Edible Estates series has taken him around America and Europe, including a commission to make an Edible Estate for Tate Modern back in 2007.
This year he created a ‘Foraging Spiral and Base Camp’ in a bowl shaped hollow of Everton Park for the Liverpool Biennial. The spiral is a wild and winding bed of tall native plants, many of which are edible or medicinal. The lawn of the hollow has been allowed to grow long. Throughout the art festival, a temporary encampment hosted conversations about the park’s future and its complicated past – it grows over an area where terraced homes and then tower blocks were levelled in the 1960s and 80s respectively.
Despite his love of working with plants, Haeg insists he is an artist not a landscape designer. “I have gradually become bored with things that are not alive – like paintings, buildings and sculptures. I like working with things that are always changing, that I am not always in complete control of,” he says.
“A landscape designer might be focused on solving problems. As an artist I might actually be looking for the problems, focusing on them, presenting them and not avoiding them… The work can be performance, political and activist, and many other things too, all at the same time.”
A hint of performance can also be found in the work of French artist Mathilde Roussel. Her ‘Lives of Grass’ sculptures are dynamic human forms – stuffed with soil and wheat seeds – that constantly change. When they are installed, the host gallery must become a plant nursery of sorts, complete with botanical lights. The living sculptures need watering daily. Their presence invites drama and ritual.
Choosing living plants over more reliable materials means opting for results that are not just unpredictable but that will ultimately die. The artwork – or its longevity – becomes less important than the process of creating it. Both Haeg and Roussel’s work has a special quality made possible by the use of plants, an ephemeral one that has something in common with performance art.
“Wheat grows very fast so you can really see the forms metamorphose through the exhibition,” explains Roussel. “After a few weeks, the wheat grass starts getting yellow and then slowly dries and dies. In this way the sculptures encapsulate the entire human and plant life cycle.” She describes time as “sculpting the forms.”
Roussel grew up on a farm in Normandy, where her family grow cereals, mainly wheat. Using wheat plants as a medium is a way of reflecting her heritage and also showing that “food has an impact on us beyond its taste.” But working with living things has huge implications for the final results.
“Because I work with organic materials, I can’t have a complete control… And this is precisely what I am interested in. Plants are a fascinating material to work with. There is something magical about the way they transform through time just like we do,” says Roussel.
Both continue to work with plants. Haeg will be planting the 13th and final of his Edible Estates for the Walker Art Center in 2013, in the suburbs of Minneapolis; while Roussel is currently working on an installation using mud and plants.
As ‘The Animals and Children Took to the Streets’ returns to the London stage for a third time, 1927’s film maker Paul Barritt talks to Animations Online about his work, explaining why the combination of live action and animation is a such a heady one.
When you set up 1927, was your USP always going to be combining live action and animation or was that a ‘eureka moment’ that came later?
The combining of animation and performance was something that occurred naturally when Suzanne and I began working together – me being a film maker and she a theatre maker/performer. There were of course many eureka moments during the course of our development and continue to be!!
Why is that combination such a heady one on stage?
I think it is connected to the audience being so used to viewing moving image material outside of the ‘live’ arena. People have grown used to a very isolated viewing experience. Even when sitting with others in a cinema, the experience is far more interior than that of a live performance. This is not a wholly negative thing of course, the viewing experience of a well made film is most certainly a positively affecting thing. It is nonetheless different to that of watching a live performance.
Now critics of the kind of work we make would say that, through the use of animation, we also reduce the importance of the ‘live’ element and that we reduce our performers to mere puppets within the animated world. This is of course entirely true! And is actually the point of what we have, albeit in an organic and haphazard way, achieved. We have ultimately arrived at a cross between film and theatre. It is a hybrid form. Theatre itself should, of course, also always be a hybrid form. So hopefully, for those who get it, you experience the dream-like qualities of watching a film alongside having to make the imaginative leaps asked of you in watching a piece of theatre.
There must be challenges in combining the two…
The technical elements, animation-wise, are undoubtedly huge. We have gone through various means of synchronising it all and of playing back the films, from a DVD player through to Qlab through to Catalyst. It gets easier but then the demands of each new project add new layers of difficulty. It is a process. I think for most it would not be worth the effort but Suzanne and I (and Esme and Lilly too for that matter) enjoy a challenge and the end result is always exciting.
When you’re developing a new performance, what comes first, the screen writing or the play writing?
Both develop together, along with the musical and performance elements. It is a completely symbiotic process. Words are written, songs are sung, films are made, we play about in front of them. We scrap them all and start again, then bring back bits, add bits, take away… it is a long process of elimination. The process, however, is always dependent upon the idea. If the idea is worth pursuing (regardless of what that it is, be it aesthetic, musical, intellectual etc.) then we will try our best to get it to work. I use quite traditional animation techniques (drawing, stop frame), combined with the use of software.
Tell us a bit about ‘The Animals and Children Took to the Streets’ – the story and the aesthetic, and how one informs the other.
The story is an old one. It is about poverty. The rich poor divide. Something that gets worse globally day by day and something that the economic system we live under has no facility to address. This impotence to do anything about it is endemic within all levels of society from the mayor through to the gossiping old ladies living in the slums. Any attempts made to change are either naïve, violent or worse still, in the case of the mayor, nothing but short-term strategies to brush all the problems of the world under the carpet. The aesthetic used to develop these ideas ranges from many different influences including those of the idealistic early Soviet days of Constructivism through to graphic novels, sci-fi, silent film and even Inspector Gadget!
You’ve been working on a version of ‘The Magic Flute’ in Berlin, can we expect to see it in the UK any time soon?
We have now finished the opera. It looks like it has done pretty well so far. It was a huge project, a huge undertaking. It is bigger than anything we have done before. Also it is the first time we have ever adapted anything. It’s not something we are interested in doing again (adapting things), as we prefer the freedom to be able to author things ourselves. Also ‘The Magic Flute’ has been done several million times! That said we have done a fairly original job on it and hopefully it will appeal to a younger crowd (god knows the opera needs ‘em). I think you have to go to Berlin at the Komische Oper to see it, couldn’t tell you if it’ll hit the UK or not.
And finally – what’s inspiring you right now?
I have just been watching a film called ‘Wunder der Schöpfung’ by Hanns Walter Kornblum (circa. 1925). I had been acquainted with his work via the Prelinger Archive and have actually not only ripped it off (blatantly utilising some of the actual images from it – see the short Lovecraft inspired film ‘Chaos’ I made many moons ago) but have also been hugely influenced by the great beauty and simplicity of his animations.
It is actually an education film about astronomy and includes many beautiful early animated images of the planets and star systems, along with lots of bizarre science fiction images (loosely based around the theory of relativity) of what life would be like according to the various levels of gravity on each planet. The animation in it has been made with scientific accuracy so took months upon months to make. Kornblum himself disappeared into obscurity along with the rest of his output during the 1930s. It is a marvellous film full of startling images and I highly recommend it!