The magic makers

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This article was written for the Barbican

Tom Morris (artistic director of Bristol Old Vic), Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones (co-founders of Handspring Puppet Company), talk about life after ‘War Horse’ and their new collaboration on ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’.

For director Tom Morris, the decision to work with puppets never felt like a radical one. Talking as he cycles to catch a train, he’s not just breathless with exertion but also with enthusiasm for the theatrical possibilities puppetry offers. It’s a passion he’s nursed for some time.

Working at Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) in the 1990s, Tom shared a building with the Puppet Centre, an organisation determined to get puppetry taken seriously. Their enthusiasm was infectious. During this period Handspring Puppet Company came over from South Africa to perform at BAC, sealing Tom’s fate.

He later collaborated with them on ‘War Horse’, which has played to millions worldwide and is credited with sweeping puppetry firmly into the mainstream. As Toms says, “puppetry isn’t taboo any more.”

In a post ‘War Horse’ world, a second collaboration with Handspring was inevitable. The decision was to do something completely different next, a version of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ that Tom describes as “wildly experimental” and that features both people and puppets. It first played at the Bristol Old Vic last spring and comes to the Barbican in February.

Shakespeare’s play is well suited to puppetry, dealing as it does with the tricks the imagination can play. According to Basil Jones, executive producer at Handspring, “everything is potentially alive” in the production. “We slightly jokingly said everything has the right to life, so even floorboards can come alive.”

Hippolyta is imagined as a sculptress, crafting images of the spirits she hopes will bless her imminent marriage. These then come alive as puppets. “Out of the figures she makes, chaos erupts,” explains Tom.

Handspring has created about 30 fantastical puppets for the play, made from wood and cane, and ranging in scale from tiny to giant. Oberon and Titania stand two and half metres tall. Sometimes they’re used in bits – just a huge head and larger than life hand, say – and other times presented as the complete figure.

“The aesthetic of the play is a little bit future survivalist,” explains Adrian Kohler, artistic director of Handspring. “There seems to have been some destructive force on the universe that these people live in. It’s a world where magic has possibly been reinvented, or brought back into the lives of the characters because they need it. The puppets are an embodiment of that language.”

Shakespeare’s audiences believed in supernatural forces and spirits, and with this production Tom wants you to as well. “The audience creates the life of the show. This is true of all theatre to a certain extent but with puppetry nothing can happen unless the audience believes the puppets are alive.”

Expectations run high after ‘War Horse’, but the chance to revive their second show together feels like a privilege. After presenting ‘Woyzeck on the Highveld’ in 2011, this is a welcome return to the Barbican for Handspring.

“The show is a fluid entity, it’s a work that’s continually evolving,” says Adrian. “The production at the Barbican is fortunate as we have the opportunity to refine it further. We hope people come with an open mind to how we’ve interpreted Shakespeare, rather than how we have rehashed ‘War Horse’.”

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