puppets at play with form & history

jonathan marshall at the unima puppetry festival

Black Hole Theatre, Coop

Black Hole Theatre, Coop

Black Hole Theatre, Coop

THE 2008 UNIMA INTERNATIONAL PUPPETRY FESTIVAL WAS DRIPPING WITH HISTORICISM, ITS BROCHURE PRINTED TO RESEMBLE A YELLOWING, WELL-THUMBED DOCUMENT, WHILE WOODEN MECHANICAL STRUCTURES (ROMEO E JULIA’S MARIONETTES, CLATTERING TOYS IN THE MECHANICS ALIVE EXHIBITION) FEATURED IN OTHER PUBLICITY. MANY SHOWS HARKED BACK TO ROMANTIC OR EXPRESSIONIST MODES, WHILE MARIONETTES AS PRECURSORS OF CYBERNETICISM WERE CONSPICUOUSLY ABSENT. THE BEST OF THESE WORKS OVERTLY ENGAGED WITH HISTORICAL DISTANCE, WHILE OTHERS ASSUMED THAT 19TH CENTURY IDEAS TRANSLATE TO NEW CONTEXTS.

South African visual artist and theatre-maker William Kentridge’s Woyzeck On The Highveld exemplified this historical and formal ambivalence. His plastic works and films are deeply historicist. Their dark tones (Kentridge works in black and white charcoals), exaggerated physiognomies and focus on (usually male) individual protagonists faced with hostile, modern environments likens his aesthetic to European Expressionism à la Schiele, Nolde, Kirchner, Murnau etc. This is heightened by Kentridge’s choosing to adapt Georg Büchner’s classic precursor of Expressionism, Woyzeck. Casting the protagonist as a poor African servant of the effete, white ‘Captain’(dressed as a bourgeois civilian and with no military role in this version) suggested one could read Woyzeck’s oppressed condition and eventual madness in racial terms. Nothing further was made of this though, while the mise en scene—especially the heavy-handed neo-Romantic music and Kentridge’s animations—suggested that Woyzeck’s fate was as much a product of modern urban life as it was of sociopolitical forces.

In short, Kentridge’s production was highly traditional and conceptually uninspiring. Nevertheless, moments of genuine surrealism and disturbing defamiliarisation shone through. At one point, Woyzeck’s marionette repeatedly tried to set a table devoid of literal props while behind him animations of each object (complete with sound effects) moved of their own accord. Woyzeck’s world seemed to come alive around him (like his own mechanised form) in ways both threatening and beautiful. Similarly an interlude in which a carnival ringmaster proclaimed how any animal (like Woyzeck) could be disciplined to perform intelligent acts on command, was here enacted by a beautiful, snuffling, marionette rhinoceros, whose open wooden ribs established its kinship with both Dürer’s print of the astonishing products of empire, Rhinocerus AD 1515, and to that other prize of human conquests: the hull of a tall ship.

Unlike Kentridge, the local artists behind Red Lashes applied a critical eye to their deployment of art historical materials, drawing on similar European dramaturgical precedents—notably modernism and Expressionist cabaret. Here however these performative concepts and ideas (rough songs, shadow play, themes of perverted village life, dark mines and Grimm fairytale imagery) were invoked ironically. Historicism thereby acted as commentary, as a game or mask which these performers invoked while constantly peeking around the corner of their own theatrical assumptions. Red Lashes’ artists are in love with the imagery of Expressionism, but not with Expressionism as a way of depicting actual social existence. A canny sense of theatrical nominalism and pastiche lies at the heart of the artists’ work.

Red Lashes depicts the town of Guells, where a devoted daughter longs for the return of her dead father and so drops her heart beneath the floorboards where it is transformed into a beast which hungers, mewls and sings, suggesting the result of an implicity incestuous union. In Red Lashes’ dark, compulsive Freudian tales, the use of puppetry, objects and historicism function to distance the audience—not to disarm the tawdry effect but to free the tales for poetry and critical play. In the end Red Lashes suggests that beautiful stories, such as one told by the father, often conceal darker truths and so should be treated sceptically. A closing image shows the female protagonist holding to her breast a glowing red heart like some kind of demonic spawn of truth and poetry.

If Red Lashes gave birth to a child of ‘rough music’ (the term for medieval tricks and aural provocations visited upon newlyweds), then Coop from Melbourne’s Black Hole Theatre was its more precisely and smoothly structured sibling, emanating from a more overtly Artaudian and Surrealist sensibility. Originally devised as a musing on Hieronymus Bosch’s sensually grotesque altarpiece. The Garden Of Earthly Delights (1504), under the title In The Beginning…Uhmmm… (2006), Coop (2007) has evolved into a sophisticated work exploring themes identified by Artaud in his commentary on Bosch. Artaud’s desire to smash through reality, representation and language was motivated by his characterisation of the universe as a demiurgical construction, of creation not as the product of a loving god but rather a demotic trickster and conjurer who has doomed us to false or incomplete perception and to a language insufficient to express reality. Although one can read Coop’s raging, mute patriarch as God—or as a homeless man who imagines himself to be God—the curses and arbitrary rages he visits on his children/companions are more suggestive of Artaud’s Demiurge.

Like Artaud’s work, Coop is resonant with Christian imagery. Coop’s wild, dishevelled young man who returns to the patriarchal fold could be the Prodigal Son, though a later scene where two of the characters animate small marionettes to whom the father-puppet gives miniature wings before jealously ripping them off and kicking the damned male puppet, also suggests the Fall of Satan from his original place as God’s most favoured angel. And is the woman a daughter, sibling, lover, or all of these in her guises as Eve and Mary to these males? Whichever she is—and no single interpretation is satisfactory—she is an object of possessive conflict between them.

The physicality of the performers is particularly astute. They hunch, crawl, grab and stroke—sometimes equipped with wax hands on sticks like ex votos. They gape, contort and shriek as though not quite human. They too are overtly puppets, animated animal-object-things which inhabit this space, given life as much by surrounding scenographic structures (Ben Cobham’s gorgeous set whose crossed arch of exposed beams suggests a wrecked ark or the ribs of Jonah’s whale) and sounds (a wonderful electroacoustic, and often quotational, radiophonic score from Kelly Ryall) as by their own souls or desires. In a particularly haunting moment, the woman is seduced and aroused by the spidery hand of the young man, here given its own life through the addition of a glowing infantile doll’s head.

Amidst such incestuous co-minglings of plastic and meat (also featured is a comically dancing chicken carcass, complete with red boots, choreographed by Michelle Heaven) Lautréamont’s Surrealist adage of humans and objects sharing their desires to produce that which is as beautiful as the coupling —on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella—is potently active. While Kentridge revivifies a body now suffering from rigor mortis, director Nancy Black and her collaborators generate a production whose diverse fusions of materials and projections of desire remain conceptually unresolved and endlessly open to new readings.

UMIMA, 20th Union Internationale de la Marionette Congress and World Puppetry Festival, Handspring Puppet Company, Woyzeck On The Highveld, adapted from Georg Büchner, director, co-designer, projections William Kentridge, co-designer, puppet master: Adrian Kohler; Playhouse.April 8-12; Red Lashes, writer Jeffrey Jay Fowler, director Timothy Watts, devisors, performers Michelle Anderson, Oda Aunan, Brendan Ewing, Sharney Nougher, lighting Chris Isaacs; Perth City Farm, April 8-11; Black Hole, Coop, devised by the company, director Nancy Black, designer, lighting Ben Cobham, performers Rod Primrose, Tamara Rewse, Conor Fox, sound, music Kelly Ryall, choreography Michelle Heaven, dramaturg John Paul Hussey; Yirra Yaakin Theatre, April 11-12; UNIMA, April 2-12, www.unima2008.com

RealTime issue #85 June-July 2008 pg. 16

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2008