Puppetry and the First World War

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This feature was written for Animations Online

Later this week, a series of enormous puppets will walk the streets of Liverpool. Royal De Luxe’s marionette-style giants are part of a five day long programme of events marking the outbreak of the First World War. Word is, the puppets will explore the city streets in a moving story that recollects Britain’s preparations for war.

There are a number of reasons why Royal De Luxe have been commissioned to tackle this tough subject, not least the success of their 2012 Titanic anniversary performance – an epic piece of street theatre that apparently attracted an audience of 800,000. But is there more to it than the promise of pure spectacle? Is puppetry a particularly effective way of exploring the challenging issues of the so-called Great War? Royal De Luxe are not the first to do it, although the scale is unique.

‘War Horse’ has of course been wowing audiences worldwide for years now. It’s a show that has flung puppetry into the mainstream and one that is impossible to imagine working without puppets. As Basil Jones, Executive Producer of Handspring Puppet Company, explains, horses were crucial to the story they wanted to tell but they couldn’t use live animals on stage. Another solution was needed.

“Historically, one of the most important things about the First World War is that it eradicated the vast majority of horses in Europe,” says Basil. “Tragically, this happened just at the time when machinery was getting good enough to replace the horse as a means of transport, and a means to work agricultural lands.

“In a sense that war was a major contributor to the demise of our ten thousand year relationship with the horse. Because real horses cannot be trained to be actors in a complex live action drama, one cannot put a horse into a theatrical context except through the use of puppet horses. So puppets are indeed an excellent medium, indeed the only viable medium, to dramatise the relationship between The Animal and The Human.”

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In ‘The Trench‘, Les Enfants Terribles use live action, rod puppetry, shadow and animation to explore the physical and psychological torment of life on the front line. “The First World War is such a horrific period in our history, with the men who went through it living through what we can only imagine as hell on earth. The writer created something very epic and heavily influenced by Orpheus in the Underworld so this was our starting point,” explains producer James Seager.

“The story sees our hero Bert becoming entombed under No Man’s Land and then journeying into a strange land filled with demons and beasts; we as an audience are never sure whether what we witness is real or his imagination. Puppets seemed the best way to embody this demonic world and we used items from the war in their design – one puppet’s face is a gas mask for example. We never see puppetry as something that is separate to the piece we are creating. We don’t see its use as a prop or an effect, merely another way to tell the story.”

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Metta Theatre has, unusually, looked at the impact of the war on women as well as men, specifically on a mother whose son has been sent off to fight. In ‘Alice’, the company blend Lewis Carroll’s much-loved tale with biography and reflection. The play is set on the night in 1915 when the real life Alice’s son Alan is killed in action. Artistic director Poppy Burton-Morgan wanted to explore themes of war, madness and death. To do this, Metta Theatre use a series of puppets constructed from domestic and military objects from the era.

“All puppets are a conduit for profound and deep-seated emotion, and objects imbued with the associations of war even more so,” says Poppy. “Often audiences can invest emotionally in the life of a puppet to a far deeper level than with a human character, and, unlike human actors, puppets are incapable of over-acting.

“The honesty in action and intent that comes with good puppetry makes it so effective in exploring the darkness of war and death in the trenches. For younger audiences it can also be a lighter, or more magical, way into a subject that is so emotionally dark. On a practical level, it is very easy (and dramatically powerful) to see a puppet die on stage, which is an inevitable aspect of exploring the Great War. This can also be wonderfully heightened and stylised as puppets don’t have to obey the laws of physics.

“There is also something ageless about many puppets, they often have a quality simultaneously child-like and ancient, which at an emotional level resonates with the image of WW1 soldier: the eager underage recruit signing up in a fit of patriotism who in the space of a few short years has experienced things that age him beyond recognition. The same puppet can express both personalities and watching them we are constantly aware of the imminent threat of ‘death’, when the puppeteer walks away, leaving the puppet or object lifeless, nothing more than a discarded shell.”

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