Originally published May 5, 2010
What is it about puppets? Doesn’t matter what form they take, what cultural background they spring from – and they’ve been all over the place for milennia – puppetry remains one of the most popular and compelling performance forms in world theatre. It’s probably an extension of our fascination with the craft and art of human representation, and provides the comfort of a more innocent age of amusement, harking as it does back to childhood. Not all puppetry is playful, however. Some of the world’s great puppet theatres contain terrifyingly blood-thirsty plotlines and special effects designed to shock and scare the audience silly; Mr Punch from the British tradition is no exception.
In Australia we’ve run the gamut from quaint to quirky. Our most famous puppeteers include Peter Scriven, the creator of The Tintookies who toured for the Australian Elizabethan Trust in the 1950s, and Richard Bradshaw, whose whimsical shadow puppetry owes much to the great European shadow plays as well as the Indonesian Wayang Kulit. Currently touring Australia is the Erth Dinosaur Petting Zoo with its giant dinosaur puppets delighting and scaring the littlies silly, if this video is any indication. Definitely not for the small folk, though possibly even more terrifying is the … ahem … artistry of the hugely successful Puppetry of the Penis duo, Australians Simon Morley and David Friend.
Meanwhile, another home-grown troupe of live actors and puppeteers, accompanied by a little friend are currently playing in the !Metro Arts Independents Season in Brisbane. In a westernised version of the grand traditional Japanese Bunraku or ‘doll theatre’ (which we saw most recently at work in the touring Avenue Q), Dead Puppet Society under the direction of David Morton bring us The Timely Death of Victor Blott written by Maxine Mellor. This is one definitely not for the faint-hearted. Audiences are warned in a foyer notice that the play contains themes that may ‘shock and offend.’
There is much to like about this piece from Dead Puppet Society, especially the world created by the designers (Whitney Eglington, Tony Brumpton, Guy Gimpel and Noni Harrison) but the stage finally belongs to Victor Blott the puppet and his animators (Courtney Stewart, Bianca McIntyre and Anna Straker). Designed and made by director David Morton, Victor possesses a sweet expressive face, all eyes (with articulated lids) but no mouth. One of the joys of this kind of puppetry lies in watching the interaction between the operators and their subject, and between puppet and live actors. The squirmy school’s group in the theatre shut down to total silence as Victor ‘walked’ across the stage, interacted with the live actors, and ‘flew’ to catch fireflies – clever set, by the way; I particularly liked the large charcoal animations used to set the scene. Who drew these?
Maxine Mellor’s dark fairytale concerns the short life of Victor, frail and born without a heartbeat – to two of those ghastly parents out of fairy tales. Victor’s voiceless, helpless, and at the mercy of a nightmare world where he becomes part of a horrific medical experiment which his emotionally fragile mother cannot prevent, and in which his failure of a father is complicit. To fill in the gaps, and to give us the inside of Victor’s head, we hear a narration – the voice of his dead sister – which, sadly, does not do vocal justice to the delicacy and nuances of Mellor’s words.
The work comes via the Brothers Grimm straight out of a Tim Burton nightmare dreamscape. The live actors (Elizabeth Millington, Chris Vernon and Kieran Law) are forced to give life to what are, essentially, cardboard fairytale characters. They look uncomfortable at times in their quasi-Dickensian garb and Goth makeup as they struggle to find a playing style that’s all of a piece with the grotesquery around them.
I don’t think I have a faint heart, but I must say I found the repetition and the drawn-out, graphic brutality quite hard to take. Blood letting on the pages of the Grimms is one thing; seeing it played out by actors looming over the small, frail puppet is quite horrific. Perhaps that is intentional – something designed to ‘shock’ as the warning had pointed out, but it borders on the gratuitous – like seeing kittens tortured, or boots stomping on butterflies, over and over. Don’t be tempted to take the kids. Some of the 16 year old around me were quite distressed, and I wondered afterwards at the point of all the cruelty. I’m still worrying a bit as to Victor’s mother urging him to consider why it’s better to die ‘with magic’ than to live ‘without it.’ Mind you, with parents like that, what alternative does a boy have?