This article was written for the New Statesman
As the National Theatre celebrates its 50th birthday, it turns out War Horse has been its most successful production to date, in terms of bums on seats. Handspring’s horse puppets are beautifully constructed from cane and georgette, more like sculptures than real animals, and are manipulated in a way that brings them remarkably to life. Skilful puppetry is a kind of magic in this way.
There’s no doubt that the show has expanded puppetry’s reach. Four million people have seen it worldwide since 2007 and it is currently playing in Birmingham, Berlin and Syracuse, New York, as well as in the West End. Up the road, Anthony Minghella’s celebrated production of Madam Butterfly has been revived at the Coliseum, another show that’s bringing puppets to the masses. Well, the opera-going masses, at least.
In both instances, the puppets represent things notoriously hard to work with – animals and children. Yet despite these significant inroads into the mainstream, puppetry still struggles to be taken seriously in the UK. Even puppeteers usually believe that adult puppetry appeals only to audiences willing to take a risk.
The age-old misconception that they’re just for kids also continues. Like most people in Britain, I find my experience of puppetry came from children’s television, but happily that experience has evolved. It was Shakespeare that first drew me down an alley in Islington to the Little Angel Theatre (the self-declared home of British puppetry) in 2004. Its collaboration with the RSC on a production of Venus and Adonis for adults was nothing new but was a revelation for me. It proved that puppetry could be sophisticated.
Shakespeare brings me down the alley again, this time for the Little Angel’s biennial Suspense London Puppetry Festival. The festival is decisively adults-only and this year’s ten-day offering includes a production of Macbeth.
The text is pre-recorded, limiting the live action to a series of mute images on simple tabletop spaces. At first the relegation of the words to a fixed soundtrack, however well read they are, feels like a heavy loss. But there’s a moment – I’m not sure when, it happens without your knowing it – when you become fully absorbed by the intricate and intimate scenes playing out before you.
The cast is part human, part bird – Macbeth is cockerel-like, Duncan is a swan. All are carefully crafted wood-and-fabric rod puppets, manipulated by three silent puppeteers. The puppets’ movements become more birdlike as they approach death. Macbeth flaps with fear as Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane.
Puppetry makes sense for a play dealing with matters of fate. This heightened the feeling that Macbeth is operating in a world where there are forces beyond his control. And as is well known, puppets give a good death. There’s barely any blood in this production, but some excellent corpses.
The murderous theme continues over the first weekend of the festival. The Shop of Little Horrors by Pickled Image is a comic horror – think Open All Hours meets The League of Gentlemen. Set in a dusty shop with explosive electrics, it features wonderful, larger-than-life masks and hair-curling eyeballs. Playing up to puppetry’s potential creepiness, the horrible history behind Albert Grimlake’s carved ventriloquist dummies slowly emerges. It’s great fun, made slick by adept lip-syncing.
Boris and Sergey’s Astonishing Freakatorium boasts miniature freaks, grisly killings and forced audience participation. Despite being just 40-centimetres high and lacking facial features, our hosts have strong stage presence. They are stitched from lovely old leather and it takes six puppeteers to give them boisterous life. Amid the silliness, and providing you can see (the action is small scale and low down), Flabbergast Theatre’s puppetry is well observed and detailed.
Adult audiences in the UK are growing more open to puppetry but it’s still in a precarious place. The festival organisers concede a limiting factor for them is the volume of quality home-grown shows to programme. But this festival bolsters puppetry’s position, not least by serving as an opportunity for companies to showcase their work.
As at any festival, you will find earnest and self-indulgent shows here as well as intelligent ones, but it’s a good chance to sample established and emerging talent alike. And existing on the margins isn’t all bad.