They may share a name, but Ted Hughes’s Iron Man is about as far from Marvel’s as you can get. Whereas Tony Stark is all about money and snide humour, Hughes’s 1968 story veils its anti-war message behind the story of a scrap metal-eating robot and a boy whom he befriends.
In his stage adaptation, using a mixture of puppetry, silhouette and animation, Matthew Robins finds the story’s playful heart. He summons a world of imagination and play by using every trick in the book, but chief among them is the restless, shifting sense of perspective throughout. One minute the Iron Man is barely a foot tall, a collection of matchbox-sized bits of cardboard and sticky tape as if made by an imaginative child; the next he’s 13 feet, a towering, dopey-looking robot with torchlight eyes.
For the first 20 minutes or so Nima Taleghani’s narration comes only in short bursts, interspersed with silent puppetry - seeing the scattered limbs of the Iron Man pull themselves into a gargantuan whole is thrilling - or crude Rorschach smudges of animation projected onto the back wall. But when the story gets into full swing and the ‘Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon’ invades Earth the show becomes completely captivating.
With so many different techniques Robins risks making it too bitty, unbound by any one single approach. But by the end, as our solar system is conjured in miniature with a twinkling orrery of empty tin cans and lampshades, the thrust of Robins’s interpretation is clear.
From this fable about destruction Robins’s message is one of creation, or rather creativity. The allegory in Hughes’s book is a condemnation of humanity’s violent and ruinous ways. Robins’s adaptation is itself a redress, using recycled cardboard to create the giant, an inducement to build things, rather than to tear them down.