London puppetry: who's pulling the strings?

War Horse War Horse
Posted: Mon Jun 20 2011

As 'War Horse' triumphs in New York, Time Out talks to the people with a hand in London's theatre puppetry revival.

Robert Lepage uses them, Complicite and Improbable use them, and they've just helped the wondrous 'War Horse', Tom Morris and Marianne Elliot's much-praised National Theatre production, scoop six Tonys on Broadway. So why has puppetry for so long been a dirty word in the theatre? It's a prejudice that looks as if it might, finally, be beginning to recede.

'Look back to the '80s, even the '90s, companies would avoid using the term “puppetry”. They'd call it “visual theatre”,' says Peter Glanville, artistic director of the Little Angel Theatre, Britain's leading puppetry venue. 'Now it's sexy again - it's regained a sense of itself.'

Visit the Little Angel and it's impossible not to fall under its spell. Situated up a cobbled Islington alley, it occupies a former temperance hall. Next door to the tiny foyer and the auditorium, with its rows of rough wooden pews, is the workshop where the puppets are created, many of them by Lyndie Wright, who founded the theatre with her husband John in 1961. If it weren't for the sunlight streaming through the windows, it would be slightly spooky: pairs of painted eyes watch impassively as Glanville talks about the art by which these inanimate creations are brought to life.

'With the current fantastic renaissance in puppetry, loads of young actors are coming to us to learn the skills,' he says. 'You've got to feel it and express it through your fingertips. That's really difficult, it's almost Zen-like.'

Glanville is currently planning the Little Angel's second Suspense Festival - a multi-venue season of puppetry for adults, scheduled for this autumn. He believes puppets have languished in critical contempt because of an association with children's theatre - which has historically suffered from similarly dismissive attitudes.

He blames TV. 'I grew up with 'Thunderbirds', 'Bill and Ben', 'Muffin the Mule' - they were hugely popular, and kind of took over the medium. There's always been adult work around. But TV is so powerful, and that, coupled with the Punch and Judy seaside experience, reinforced the idea that puppetry is for children. So it's been a double prejudice - not only has puppetry been fairground, carnivalesque, end-of-the-pier, it's also been for children, and children's theatre has been subjugated.'

That's been reinforced, 'by the Arts Council refusing to fund puppetry'. The Little Angel has never received any core funding from any source; this year it applied for National Portfolio funding and was again rejected.

Adrian Kohler of Handspring, the South African company behind those magnificently expressive wicker and leather steeds in 'War Horse', sees the stigma developing earlier. 'Up to the nineteenth century, puppetry happened on the streets, it was bawdy, irreverent and satirical,' he explains. 'But by the 1850s, London's pavements were so choked with people that a law was passed that puppet shows could take place only indoors. The arrival of Punch and Judy in the drawing rooms of the upper classes meant Mr Punch had to clean up his act, because of the presence of children. With the sexual innuendo and political satire gone, the adults lost interest and children became the primary audience.'

He and Handspring co-founder Basil Jones profess themselves 'gobsmacked' at 'War Horse's Tony success - but they feel mainstream recognition is yet to be won. 'There is still no award category for this artform in the major award systems. True recognition will come when that changes,' says Jones.

Steve Tiplady, Glanville's predecessor at the Little Angel, who created one of the theatre's best shows - a very adult, RSC co-production of Shakespeare's 'Venus and Adonis' - has worked on a 'Doctor Faustus' with stilt work and giant dragons, which opens this week Shakespeare's Globe.

Tiplady - whose new piece, 'Penumbra', will feature in Suspense - points out that public perceptions are widening to embrace 'object theatre'. Punters who were thrilled by Improbable's reputation-making ghost story '70 Hill Lane' in 1996 may not have thought they'd seen a puppetry production, but in that show, Tiplady and the company created an eerily beautiful haunted house almost entirely from sticky tape. And the Little Angel, which began life as a marionette theatre, now presents all kinds of puppetry, some of it decidedly experimental. 'People are playing with sand, or oil, or even the movement of lights,' says Glanville. 'It's a fascinating time.'

Out of such 'play' can come work that, as Jones and Kohler emphasise, often has a deeply serious intent. Their new piece, 'Woyzeck on the Highveld', a reworking of Buchner, comes to the Barbican this September. 'The puppet's struggle to live, that it could “die” at any moment, is a powerful metaphor for the difficulty of our own struggles with life,' says Jones. 'Puppets can play with scale and politics so effectively.'

It seems that, having cut its strings, puppetry is at last stepping out of the shadows. And, says Jones, it's here to stay. 'Puppetry is not a fad. What we are witnessing is theatre rediscovering its missing limb.'

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