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Puppet theatre

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Post  eddie Wed Dec 21, 2011 5:00 am

Puppet theatre: why it's anything but wooden

Puppets such as those in Kneehigh's latest production seem supernaturally skilled at manipulating our heartstrings

Puppet theatre A-Very-Old-Man-with-Enorm-007
Puppetry on the rise ... two central characters from Kneehigh's A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings at London's Little Angel Theatre

It's pretty obvious that puppets are having a bit of a theatrical moment. The internet is heaving with articles celebrating the National's runaway success, War Horse, huge crowds still clamour for Avenue Q (soon to be on tour again) and many respected experimental theatre companies now incorporate puppetry in their shows. The power of the puppet is undoubtedly surging – and in many ways it's downright baffling. They're just prettily decorated wooden sticks, dammit; how can they bring a story to life?

And yet, when they work well, puppet shows are often heartfelt, profoundly moving experiences. There's something about these wonderfully (un)wooden creations that seems to deeply touch an audience. Perhaps it's down to the simple stories that puppets help portray. After all, unless you want a hideously overburdened narrator, a puppet show plot has to be relatively straightforward. And simple stories are often the most powerful.

Indeed, in a recent interview for The Times [paywall], Steven Spielberg attributed his enthusiasm for War Horse to precisely this, the simplicity of its narrative: "The heart of the story is that a boy lost the most important thing in his life." But I can't help worrying that Spielberg's film, despite retaining the emotional core of Michael Morpurgo's original story, risks losing the magic of the National's puppet-centric production. The cheesy trailer certainly hints at a sentimental but pretty soulless affair.

So, while engaging plotlines go part-way to explaining puppetry's power, they are clearly only half the story. What extra magic do puppets weave? Watching Kneehigh's captivating A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, it dawned on me that puppet shows often contain, in many senses, exceptionally well-crafted characters. Puppeteers might carve their characters out of wood but they need a peculiarly deep understanding of their puppets' inner lives. After all, a decent actor has a huge range of expressions with which to unlock a role. A puppeteer has only one.

Sophisticated puppet companies such as Handspring build a puppet's character by using ears, tails and twitching limbs, but they must still commit to a single facial expression. Imagine if every line on an actor's face held such weight. In Enormous Wings, the puppets' expressions are pitched perfectly, somehow nailing each character without ever turning into a caricature. The young and impressionable son had small, shocked eyes: open yet vulnerable. The shallow mother possessed a warm but stretched smile, and the pompous priest had a delicate circle for a mouth – faintly ridiculous and always on the point of interrupting. As for the very old man with enormous wings, his eyes were glinting mirrors – exciting and a bit frightening.

Kneehigh's twinkling production also reminded me of the importance of the interaction, if one can call it that, between puppeteer and puppets. The way the puppet masters treat their charges reveal just as much as Anna Maria Murphy's delicately lyrical script – they're really turning in two performances at once, both controlling and responding to their creations.

Yet, there is always that extra "something" to puppet shows that can't quite be quantified, like magical effects that can't be explained. Often, the puppets' expressions seem to change as the story develops – a smile that once seemed gleeful suddenly turns strained and sad. Our brains tell us such a shift is impossible, yet it's hard to shake off the idea that these puppets are morphing, or becoming human. Put simply, puppet shows make us believe in impossible transformations – and what could be more theatrical than that?
The Gap Minder

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