The play’s the thing | exploring the V&A’s puppetry collection

V&A archive 01

This feature was written for Animations Online

Allison Ouvry is nervous and excited. After winning access to the V&A’s puppet archive last year, she and a crack team of creatives have been charged with breathing new life into the collection while, at the same time, celebrating the Bard’s 450th birthday. This Easter, The Puppet Story theatre collective, of which Allison is part, will perform ‘Shakespeare: The Puppet Show‘ to young V&A visitors during the museum’s Shakespeare festival. Until then, there’s a lot to do. A freshly written script to learn, a set to build and a mass of old puppets to recreate.

I meet Allison on a sunshine-and-showers early spring day. Even when the drizzle turns into driving rain, her enthusiasm for the project doesn’t dwindle. It turns out she is near neighbours with Blythe House, the V&A’s imposing archival building in Olympia. The proximity of the puppetry collection to Allison’s home gives the collaboration a feeling of fate. She’s booked us a couple of hours in the archive so she can introduce some of the characters that have shaped the show.

The imposing red brick Blythe House – the former headquarters of the Post Office Savings Bank – has the aura of a dignified Edwardian hospital, a place where great artefacts are sent for rest and restoration. After signing in and stowing our bags in lockers, we are shown down long, echoing corridors and up a set stairs to a locked room full of tall white cabinets.

V&A archive 02

The cabinets have windows and inside, filed away in neat rows, lie a multitude of puppets. Mainly marionettes carved from wood – although some glove, rod and shadow too – there are characters and creatures here of all shapes and sizes. Wandering down the room’s hushed aisles, you will catch the eye of musicians, kings, playwrights and princesses; an owl, a camel, a frog and a fox; genies, monsters, Punch and Judy. An archive viewed by appointment only, the puppets don’t get out much and for Allison it is both an honour and a responsibility to have access to this unique world. It’s a quiet place but one gently pulsing with potential life; these now silent puppets must once have led colourful lives.

There are over 250 puppets stored in the V&A archive. When Allison and her collaborator (and husband) Martin Ouvry first visited last year, it was an overwhelming experience. They had limited time and rushed through the shelves, trying to meet as many puppets as possible and garner ideas for a show.

Impossible to use everything on offer in the archive, Allison and Martin honed in on a few puppets that really grabbed their attention. A three headed puppet known as the Scaramouche, a dainty young woman with a determined look in her eye called Pimpinella, a cheeky shadow Karaghoz, a skeleton and a ruddy, long nosed Punch. And the star of the show will be the Martinek Giant, a green hued Robin Hood esque fellow, with felt hair and a beautifully carved face that gives him a rugged, serious look.

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Their initial ideas have developed into a final story that’s set in the modern day. The puppets, each grappling with his or her sense of identity, are offered the chance to break free from the archive by auditioning to be in a Shakespeare play. It sounds like it might be a wild cross between Toy Story and The X Factor, with as many puppets and Shakespearean allusions as possible thrown in. Youngsters will be educated and amused; adults will no doubt try and identify quotes from as many plays as they can.

Because of the delicate state of the puppets – some are over a hundred years old –The Puppet Story collective are recreating them rather than using the originals. This means they can swap strings for rods in most instances, making convincing manipulation much easier to achieve. Max Humphries, recently resident at The National Theatre, is making the majority of the rod puppets, while Emma Powell is devoting her paper engineering talents to numerous shadow characters. The collective also includes composer and foley artist Andrew Sleightholme; set designer and metal artist Norrie Steele; director Jessica Fox; plus puppeteers/singers, Allison, Martin and Darren East.

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