Puppetry has broken out of the fringes and become part of the mainstream in theatre in recent years. From West End behemoths The Lion King and War Horse to opera, the Little Angel Theatre and countless Christmas shows, for anyone who goes to the theatre regularly puppets have no doubt become part of the diet. I have to say I had a shaky relationship with them in my youth, being a rather serious actor type a few years ago, I hated the idea of anything getting in the way of the actor and the audience. Puppeteering in my eyes was a cheap device that seemed to have fallen into vogue by directors who could manipulate marionettes in a way they couldn’t with the living, breathing actor. It led to some painful lessons, no doubt more for my tutors and classmates then stubborn old me and some acting that was a heck of a lot more wooden then the puppets I was trying to control. It was only on first encountering Michael Morpurgo’s classic that I finally saw the folly of my conviction: that the horses and other farm yard animals that were brought to life by the wonderful actors under the guidance of theatre genius’ Handspring, were as alive and tangible as any live performance. If I haven’t seen anything that has bewitched me and held me in its vice since, well that’s no different then saying no performance has come close to that of Mark Rylance in Jerusalem, these things may only be once in a lifetime.
Bristol, the city of the counter-cultural, is undoubtedl the spiritual homes to the art of puppeteering. Catching up on some of the work in its biannual Puppet Festival the first thing that became very clear to me was the wide range of work that falls into the category of puppetry. Out of the three main shows I saw, only one actually had puppets at its heart. All the work had the actor, or musician, or singer, or clown as its centre, the puppets being a side piece rather than the main course. The Punch and Judy Show that played on weekend mornings and afternoons took us back to being children on the coast, of ice creams, donkey rides, sand and the idea that we knew what puppetry was. The other shows subverted this.
Coulrophobia at the Tobacco Factory saw two clowns, trapped in a cardboard world, waiting for release like the two tramps from Godot but with this stranger appearing in the malevolent form of Uncle Bocca. For anyone who thought the clown in It was terrifying then Bocca is even greater reason to run screaming the next time you enter a big top. The only chance for these clowns to escape is to persuade two members of the audience to take their place. Played by both actors with high energy and madcap violence like Itchy and Scratchy taken human form it ends with literal naked desperation and a sense that these clowns are destined to play this scenario over and over again in their own form of purgatory.
A mechanical punk band took over the Arnofini on the first Sunday night and proceeded to tear the place down to the delight of the bank holiday crew. Ramkoers gives you that festival feeling of it being four in the morning, off your tits and finding magic and a sprinkling of star dust in everything around you. Electric saws, wood that screams beautifully pitched sounds, an accordion that moves across the stage on its own, vibrato being provided by a salad spinner. If the lyrics being mostly in Dutch means that we lose some of the band Bot’s intellectual content, nothing is lost in its visceral power.
If it seems odd to suggest that a puppet chamber opera about a man who can’t stop eating was the most traditional piece I saw but it was that kind of festival. The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak was baggy and overstretched at two hours including interval but had melodies that entered the soul and a story that seems so unbelievable that it could only ever be true. If they can turn it into a true chamber piece, ninety minutes straight through then Wattle and Daub really could be on to something.
Alongside the theatre work there was a larger focus on film this year. A career retrospective and question and answer session at the Watershed from stop motion masters the Quay Brothers, also included an installation on Redcliffe Bascule Bridge that will continue to show until the end of September. Late night cabarets at the Tobacco Factory demonstrated that puppetry is definitely not just the preserve of kids!
We already know that Bristol loves its festivals but with Mayfest, the Puppet Festival and now Circus City about to burst onto the scenes this October is there a city that creates so much buzz and supports so many different strands of live performance. I only caught the tip of the iceberg here but that grumpy acting student who clutched his copy of An Actor Prepares has been lost for good. The puppets most definitely won me over!