That’s the way to do it

As a child I remember watching a puppet show with my grandfather. Nothing unusual in that, except it was on a beach. I can’t recall it very clearly except that I didn’t like the major character, who frightened me. As I have been exploring puppet theatre across the world I have steadfastly ignored this experience until a colleague pointed out that Punch and Judy was as much a legitimate world theatre form as Wayang Kulit. So I was prompted to dig deeper, and even more so when the image below, taken two weeks ago, appeared in the british press.

And the one below is from late nineteenth century.


I hadn’t realised quite how old the form was, or that it had its roots in Commedia dell’arte – although now that seems really obvious. Punch and Judy is one of the world’s most famous and long running puppet shows. It is essentially linked with England but Punch and Judy can be found just about wherever the colonial English decided to ‘set up home’ and english is spoken as a first language, America, Canada, Australia. Here is a great history of the form, written by Keith Preston, an Australian Punch and Judy man.

Punch and Judy has its origins in the commedia street theatre of medieval Italy and Punch arrived in England in 1663 from Italy as the marionette Pulchinello (noted by the famous London diarist Samuel Pepys). The character evolved into Punch over the next century and Punch appeared extensively both as a marionette and as a comic actor and slowly acquired a more English character that was a cross between the English Jester, Fool and the Shakespearean comic characters. In the late 1700’s the London puppet theatres closed and Punch and Judy as we know it appeared as a busking act on the streets of London as a portable hand-puppet show.

To entertain its new audience of street-wise townsfolk this new form of puppet theatre needed to be fast, loud, action-packed, comic and portable. Punch and Judy was all of these and more. The show started with the bottler (assistant who carried the bottle for the money donations) banging a drum and playing the pan pipes. The Punch-Man (later to be called a “Professor of Punch”) stayed inside the booth and operated all of the puppets and most notably the character of Punch whose shrill shrieking voice was created with a special reed inserted in the throat (known as the swazzle).


The early puppeteers led a gypsy style existence moving through the streets of London and also taking the puppet show to fairs and events. When Londoners began to travel to the seaside towns by train in the 1840’s the Punch Professors followed and soon the Punch and Judy Show became a seaside institution. Some beaches and cities have had a Punch and Judy show every year for well over a hundred and thirty years. The Punch Professors guarded their shows fiercely and only passed on the secrets of puppetry to a son or nephew and kept the business ‘in the family’.

The show itself has changed enormously over the last two hundred years. The first written scripts appear around 1830 but illustrations of shows actually appear in the 1770’s. By the time the first scripts are found the Punch and Judy show has already been around for fifty years and has had a chance to develop into a fully fledged puppet show. While the story is new and reflects the life of the then modern Londoner, the script is also full of references to the early years of Punch, to the Medieval mystery plays and to the symbolic dramas, themes and characteristics of England.

The early shows feature Mr Punch , a hook-nosed comic figure with a stick who is a cowardly braggart but strangely likeable. He hides, lies, cheats, steals, beats, boasts eats, drinks and loves his way through a difficult life. He is a rascal but is also an “Everyman” figure in that he represents the average person. In the old storyline he has an argument with other characters, fights them, sometimes he kills them, is chased by the law, taken to jail, but beats the hangman and the devil and ends as triumphant anti-hero. In between, the whole drama is treated as a total farcical comedy with lots of action, routines, jokes and slapstick moments. Other characters include Judy his wife and their Baby, Scaramouch the neighbour and his dog Toby (often played by a real dog) Joey the Clown, The Beadle or Policeman, The Quack Doctor, The Crocodile, Sweet Polly the Mistress, The Hangman, The Devil. In particular the characters of Hangman and Devil owe their origins to the medieval English dramas and early theatre of the Elizabethan period.


Obviously much of this is black-humour but with the comic drama, Punch and Judy acquired a symbolic status as a drama about life itself. Punch and Judy was a hugely popular entertainment for ordinary people on the street but also was often invited into private homes and mansions of the aristocrats.

It is interesting to note that a similar evolution of the commedia/marionettes also happened in other parts of Europe around the same time or slightly later and in Germany we have a similar hand-puppet show-Kaspar, in France – Guignol, Petrushka in Russia, Punchinello in Italy as well as links to the Greek shadow puppet theatre.

Punch and Judy emigrated with the English to America, Australia and other parts of the world in the Nineteenth Century but by the 1940’s was in decline with the advent of films and other aspects of popular entertainment. As with many other forms of traditional performance such as Vaudeville, Circus, Fairs and so on Punch and Judy was able to reinvent itself and had a revival in the 1960’s with the new emphasis on community arts, national pride, tourism and so on.


However over the years the Punch and Judy Show has also adapted and changed. In some cases it has become more of a children’s entertainment, far removed from its origins as a street-play. The rough and tumble violence has been changed and Punch is very much less of a sinister figure than he was in his early days. Some performers however do present shows that portray old-style performances still to this day.

To me it all seems terribly dated, but it clearly lives on. In an article in the Smithsonian Magazine by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie earlier this year the question is asked, Are Punch and Judy Shows Finally Outdated? It would seem not, although Rodriguez McRobbie does  talk about the violence (and murder!) in the shows:

The violence, of course, has remained—and for that reason, Mr. Punch’s influence on children has understandably long been a source of worry. A New York Times article from February 11, 1896, describes children enjoying a Punch show on West 135th Street in Manhattan—and one “grave gentleman,” who resembled Punch “as if they were brothers,” grumbling at the policeman-beating scene and declaring, “It is a shame to show such things to children! How can you expect them to have any respect for the law?”

In 1947, the Middlesex County Council in England banned Punch and Judy from schools, prompting wide outcry from Punch fans and his eventual reinstatement. More than 50 years later, in 1999 and 2000, other councils in Britain considered banning Punch and Judy shows on the claim that they were too violent for children; they didn’t, but it was close……Punch defenders claim that’s just modern oversensitivity. “Although adults get very upset about the violence, the bashing the baby, it’s no more real to a child than watching a cartoon, like ‘Tom and Jerry,’” says Cathy Haill, curator of popular entertainment for the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. “Ninety-nine percent of children will roar with laughter [at ‘Tom and Jerry’] and not think ‘Oh, I’ve got to write to the society for prevention of cruelty to cats’…Nowadays, people are far more— and I hate this term—politically correct and get ridiculously worried about things like this, in my view.”

Mr_Punch_coverInterestingly though, Punch has been reinvented in a number of ways. In 1994 The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch appeared as graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. Last year Improbable Theatre created one of its most famous pieces, The Devil and Mr Punch:







There are two excellent pieces from Exuent that look at this particular show, The Immortal Mr Punch by Gareth Martin, and an interview with Julian Crouch (Designer and Director) by Tom Wicker.


And to finish, a delightful interview from 3 days ago, entitled Keeping Punch and Judy in the family, by Giulia Rhodes for the Guardian, where she talks to three generations of a Punch and Judy family.


Yes, But Is It Art?

My share today is one that resonated when I read it. I could have written it myself. In his article, Yes, but is it art? (written for BTG), Nathan Gabriel, Assistant Professor of Theatre at the University of Louisiana, speculates on a question that often occurs to teachers, students, audiences and reviewers. I shall say no more – have a read!

Yes, But is it Art

Is this play art? It’s a tricky question that I encounter a lot. It’s difficult partially because I’m never sure what, exactly, is meant by the word “art”. In a very literal sense, any theatrical production you see is art since theatre is one of The Arts. And while that broad definition is convenient and tidy, it feels dishonest. I know in my heart of hearts that not all theatre is created equal and that pure entertainments, like a juggling cabaret for example, don’t fall under the same umbrella as, say… Hamlet. They may both be theatre, but they are not both art.


Another problem with the “it’s all art” viewpoint is that it is also fairly useless. As a theatre practitioner and educator, I am regularly placed in situations where being able to determine whether or not a show is art can be an important distinction to make. Questions like what play should I choose to direct; how will I approach producing said play; what show will I ask my students to see/read; and what kind of review will I write are all affected by the answer to this very basic question.

So then how do we determine the difference between art and what I will call, for brevity and clarity’s sake, entertainment? When I pose this question with new theatre students everyone readily agrees that some performances are art and some are not. Often the students push shows with a focus on performance instead of theme (a show like Stomp, for example) out of the art category and into entertainment. Confusion arises, however, when they attempt to say why. Their attempts to discern art in the theatre usually touch on three categories.


First they claim that a play is art if it moves them personally. This is problematic because it sets an individual up as The King Of Art, whose personal opinion speaks for all. So an amendment is usually made that every person should get to decide for themselves whether a play is art or not. This idea, while nice in its utopian nature, is in no way practical. Outside of academic conversations, theatre must deal in collaborative practicalities. Plays need to be selected for funding, sets need to be built, artistic teams need to work together to make productions happen, and objective, not subjective, guidelines have to be followed if these productions are to be successful.

The next proposal to determine a play’s artistic worthiness usually involves consulting experts like theatre critics, playwrights, and other artists who “know”. Unfortunately, these experts often disagree with one another, and even when they do agree can be proved wrong by a production that finds favour with history instead of its contemporary audiences.

Finally, some students argue for craft as being a determining factor. How well did the actors perform? Was the script well written? How impressive were the sets and special effects? This is a very convincing argument, which smartly takes into account the individual parts that make up the artistic whole. While I appreciate the effort to point to an objective set of criteria, in my experience a play can have a fantastic set, script, and cast of actors, but still not be art. So why not?


Let us look briefly outside of the theatre to see how this question was addressed in the visual arts. In 1917, artist Marcel Duchamp placed an ordinary urinal in an art gallery, turned it on its side, and called it art. Despite causing an uproar with gallery patrons and art critics at the time, this and other Duchamp “ready-mades” have been named by history as important works of art and are shown in museums around the world. Why?

It’s because Duchamp was criticizing the status quo. These pieces were a response to a gallery rule that any art could be shown as long as the artist paid a fee to exhibit. With his ready-made sculptures Duchamp challenged how people determine what they call art. In this example we find a definite clue about requirement for art status: intentional communication. Since Duchamp did not make the items he was displaying, he utilized not mastery of craft, but of idea. Thus, communicated ideas and intention take centre stage in the debate about whether or not something is art. From this perspective, the true litmus test for whether theatre is art is whether the production was intentionally designed to communicate with an audience.

However, not just any communication will do. I propose that the statement must be worth making. Every production, if one looks hard enough, probably attempts to communicate something. For example, in a Cirque Du Soleil show there is usually a loose plot upon which is hung many feats of physical prowess. We marvel at the skill of the performers but leave without a clear idea of what the point of it all was. Love is good? Keep on dreaming? Something about The Beatles? I am not saying that Cirque isn’t highly entertaining and impressive theatre (they don’t tour the world because they’re boring), but I am saying it’s not art. It’s not art because it doesn’t communicate anything that is authentic and/or necessary to hear about life.


This assertion raises the question, what exactly does a production need to communicate to be considered art? The answer to this should probably not be overly defined since art tends to defy being put into neat little boxes. However, I can offer you this—a professor of mine once said something that I refer to when I am faced with the art question: “If it says something that you know is true but would have trouble putting into words, it’s probably art.” Similarly, American playwriting legend Tennessee Williams once wrote in the New York Star, “[Art] is a benevolent anarchy: it must be that, and if it is true art, it is. It is benevolent in the sense of constructing something which is missing, and what it constructs may be merely criticism of things as they exist.”

Both of these definitions, as well as the example of Duchamp’s ready-mades, point towards art being a communication of the elusive truths of life that, for whatever reason, need to be heard by audiences in the particular time the show is produced. Not just a show of talent or a deeply emotional experience, art is more than just the well-made sum of its parts. It is holier than that. True art is the unspoken, said aloud.


Your thoughts? I would really like to know. Do leave a comment if you have time.

Going Global

I found myself recently in a conversation about what the term World Theatre means? I came to the conclusion that it depends on where in the world you are. For me, Cantonese Opera is not World Theatre because it exists on my doorstep, but for my students the work of Harold Pinter is, for example, as is the Broadway Musical.

But an announcement last week by a theatre company got me back on to this subject and it really got me thinking. The Globe Theatre in London, who I also wrote about recently, said they are sending a production of Hamlet on the first genuine world tour in theatre history. Starting on 23 April 2014, the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, the company will spend two years travelling by planes, trains, boats and buses to visit every nation on Earth – 205 countries in all.  My immediate thoughts were, ‘is this inspired or is it arrogance  – only a British company would consider doing this?’. However, a quick Google search later disabused me of my cynicism. The proposed tour was reported in Canada, Australia and the US (not surprisingly, you might think), but also in India, China, Egypt, Turkey and many other places where English is not spoken as a first language. The saintly Peter Brook commented that it is:

a bold and dynamic project……the six simplest words in the English language are ‘to be or not to be’. There is hardly a corner of the planet where these words have not been translated. Even in English, those who can’t speak the language will at once recognise the sound and exclaim ‘Shakespeare!'”


According to The Globe’s artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole the idea came about because they wanted to build on the festival they hosted last year where all 37 Shakespeare plays were performed in 37 different languages, by actors from 37 countries. I wrote about it my post Globe to Globe. Further details were given in an interview with Maev Kennedy in the Guardian

Globe theatre plans 205-nation Hamlet world tour

Two-year tour will start next April on 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, and aims to visit every nation on Earth

“I think having a lunatic idea is a very good thing, it’s a great way to keep everybody focused and dazzled and delighted by the ambition and energy of the company,” said the artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole. “If we’re going to do every country in the world it has to be every country, we’re not going to leave anyone out. All the ‘Stans, South and North Korea – we’re very keen to get into North Korea. Antarctica? Fuck yes.”

He said it had to be Hamlet for the project. “It is an iconic play, instantly recognisable anywhere. It has that capacity to question, to challenge, to inspire in any country in the world,” he said.

The show will open at the Globe next April, and close there exactly two years later on 23 April 2016, which also happens to be Dromgoole’s last day as artistic director.

The 204th and 205th stops are already decided: the Rift Valley in Kenya – “where human life began on Earth”, Dromgoole said – and Elsinore in Denmark, the castle where Shakespeare set his tragedy. They will be performing in theatres, in town squares, on beaches and in jungle clearings. There are, however, many gaps and question marks in the plan.

The company will snake across Europe, at one point playing four countries in five days, into the Caribbean, America north and south, down the west coast of Africa, on into Australia and the Pacific islands (“logistically that could be quite hard work,” Dromgoole said, looking slightly anxious for the first time) on to Indonesia, Japan, China and Asia, back up the east coast of Africa, to Elsinore and then home. Easy.

Hamlet at the Globe

The experiment is unprecedented but builds on links forged through the Globe’s last spectacular attempt to link nations through the words of the glover’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon. Last summer as part of world Shakespeare season celebrating the Olympics, the Globe invited companies to come and perform every play the Bard wrote in 37 different languages – including Troilus and Cressida in Maori, Two Gentlemen of Verona in Shona (spoken in Zimbabwe and Zambia), and the Henry VI plays divided among the Balkans in Serbian, Albanian and Macedonian.

The season proved a wild success, seen by more than 100,000 people in six weeks, 80% of them first-time visitors to the Globe. “It was such a fantastic experience I thought we need to keep that energy going, we need another bananas idea,” Dromgoole explained.

The touring Hamlet will be the Globe’s scaled-down version, which has already been admired in UK tours, with a cast of eight – from a company of 12 to allow for illness and even the odd day off – playing more than two dozen roles between them, scampering through the text of Shakespeare’s longest play in just over two and a half hours.


Although they hope to attract sponsorship, the unsubsidised main house on the South Bank has been making a handsome profit in recent years, and small-scale tours having been covering their costs or better.

Since Dromgoole launched Romeo and Juliet in a camper van six years ago – the modern version of the strolling players of Shakespeare’s day arriving in a wagon piled high with props and costumes, he said – he has been trying to reach the parts other tours don’t touch.

This summer he is sending a company out to play Shakespeare’s history plays on the actual battlefields that sparked regime change,  with Henry VI on the wide green fields in Yorkshire where in 1461 streams ran red with blood and ditches were choked with bodies at the battle of Towton.

“Touring is in our blood,” Dromgoole said. “It’s what Shakespeare’s company did, it’s what we do – and it’s great fun.”

Another interview here with The Globe’s executive producer, Tom Bird, gives you an even greater idea about the possibilities and logistics behind the tour.

I have to applaud Dromgoole for his vision. It is inspired. Perhaps Shakespeare is the true World Theatre? He is performed in the original and in translation all over the world. I was reading an interview with a Kuwaiti actor yesterday who said his greatest challenge and love was always Shakespeare (in Arabic). I’ve seen bilingual performances here in Hong Kong. Shakespeare is a favourite in Korea.

This tour will be an interesting one to follow once it gets underway. I am looking forward to how it is received. You can follow it on Twiiter @WorldHamlet.

Digital Dreaming

I am always fascinated about how we can use technology to create and enhance performance and it is something that is clearly being embraced by theatres, directors and performers around the world. For example, live, streaming performance is starting to become the norm, rather than the exception. The National Theatre, through their NTLive programme, now regularly broadcasts it’s work to cinemas around the world.

However, it’s where technology allows a performance to become something that otherwise wouldn’t be possible is what really excites me. Therefore I was happy to come across this article in Wired by Liz Stinson about a performance called Mr and Mrs Dream. The creators, Le Théâtre du Corps, worked with a software company, Dassault Systèmes, to make something rather special indeed.

A Virtual Stage That Bends Reality and Pushes Theater’s Boundaries

There’s a scene in the contemporary ballet Mr. & Mrs. Dream where the walls of the set appear to burst apart, transporting one of the principal dancers from an apartment living room to a sea of meteorites in outer space. The dancer, Julien Derouault from Paris’ Théâtre du Corps, begins to hop from meteorite to meteorite, and with each step, the space rocks appear to dip from the heft of the human body. Of course, Derouault isn’t actually bouncing on meteorites; in reality, he’s simply leaping on the floor of an almost empty stage. The scene is mesmerizing, and from the vantage point of the audience, it really does look like the dancer is jumping through outer space. But it’s all an illusion, created by an elaborately engineered virtual reality system that could begin to replace traditional sets with projectors, screens and computers.

Though the show was conceived and choreographed by Derouault and his partner Marie-Claude Pietragalla, the brains behind Mr. and Mrs. Dream’s high-tech set is Dassault Systèmes. The French software engineering company typically uses its virtual reality technology to test, model and simulate products for companies like Boeing, so it’s natural to think that this collaboration is a bit of an odd pairing. But, says Mehdi Tayoubi, vice president in charge of experiential strategy at Dassault, interdisciplinary collaboration is becoming more common and more imperative for high-tech companies.


“It’s very important when you claim to be an innovative company, to be able to go outside the laboratory and your comfort zone,” says Tayoubi, who heads up Dassault’s Passion for Innovation program, an initiative whose goal is to apply the company’s industrial research and technology skills to the worlds of culture and education. Since 2005, Dassault has worked with architect Jean-Pierre Houdin to simulate the construction of Cheops pyramid, partnered with director Luc Besson to bring 3-D interactivity to movie theaters, and helped cartoon artists turn their cartoons into virtual reality (and these are just a few of their projects). Mr. and Mrs. Dream is Dassault’s first crack at live dance, and not surprisingly, there were some challenges and miscommunications along the way. “At the beginning it was a little bit difficult,” says Tayoubi. ”But we learned to share the same language.”

One of Dassault’s main challenges was creating a virtual reality system that was technical enough to accomplish the complex visual effects that the dance company envisioned while still being simple to use. “We needed to design a system that we can give to people who are not engineers and they could set up everything in a few hours,” explains Benoît Marini, Dassault’s virtual reality expert. The system also had to be mobile since the company would eventually be touring with it around the world.


Marini’s solution was a mobile “magic box,” which is basically a disassemble-able series of four gray screens and six projectors that would be the canvas for the immersive world of Mr. & Mrs. Dream. The box is similar to the virtual reality rooms traditionally used by industrial companies, only instead of testing emergency scenarios and modeling new airplane features, this box is used to motion-track dancers and project computer-generated images. For scenes like the one mentioned above, Marini positioned three Kinect sensors above the stage to track the dancers’ movements. So when the dancers jump, the meteorites bounce, or when the dancers kick, a flurry of leaves float through the air. Most of the other projected dance numbers were motion-captured in the studio and are played back in sync with the music. The audience doesn’t have to wear 3-D glasses; instead the team uses perception tricks like digitally created trompe l’oeil to convey depth and dimension.


Fittingly, Mr. & Mrs. Dream is based on the work of Eugène Ionesco, the famed playwright whose work was a hallmark of the Theatre of the Absurd. “We always say to our customers like Boeing: ‘There is no limit, dream big, we can do everything,’” says Tayoubi. “So we saw a lot of similarity between Eugène Ionesco and what we are doing everyday.” Tayoubi believes that working on inter-disciplinary projects like this is the key to innovation, citing the magic box as a technology that Dassault will use again at automobile shows to give 3-D representations of new cars. Working with artists forces the scientifically minded to push boundaries and create solutions to problems that they’ve never encountered before. “Artists have a lot of imagination,” says Marini. ”Sometimes they want effects that aren’t possible.” So what happens when the dancers ask for something they can’t create, like holograms that can interact with the audience? “You say, ‘wow,’” Tayoubi laughs, “Then you begin to find a solution.”

You can read a review of the show here.


Riding High

Today’s post is born out of one those moments of revelation when you think ‘how did I miss that? How can I not have heard of that’.  I am writing about the Bamana giant body puppets of Mali. If you have never heard of this tradition it is well worth looking at, because when I say big, I mean BIG!


I need to point out at this stage that in the Bambara language the same word is used for both ‘mask’ and ‘puppet’, since both serve the same function: to enable mythical and supernatural beings to be brought to life by hidden performers. I got a little confused at first, but I like the idea that there is no distinction between the two .


Below is a brief background, courtesy of Museum of African Art in New York, but first I suggest you watch this.  The narration is in French (Mali was a French colony until 1960) and very accessible even with my poor school-boy ear.


At Arm’s Length: The Art of African Puppetry

The art of Malian puppet theatre, the Sogo bo (the animals come forth), practiced by the Bamana of Mali and originated by the fishing community of Bozo, dates back to pre-colonial Mali. Sogo bo, a performance of puppet and mask dances, tells stories of Malian tradition, imparting valuable lessons in morality while entertaining the audience.

Within the Sogo bo performance animals of the bush are paramount.The Bamana describe themselves as cultivators and hunting people, and it is therefore animals from the bush that predominate. The animal characters represent far more than their counterparts in the bush. They are the symbols, the tangible manifestation of the essential force of the animal. They are the imperial majesty of the buffalo or the conniving duplicity of the hare. The qualities are implied through the costume and the dance of the masker. The buffalo masker regally marches about, and the youthful spark of the hare can be seen in its quick, vigorous movements. The antelope can be seen striding grace-fully, and the baboon jumps about with vigor.


The Sogo bo masquerades are organized by the village youth associations, the kamalen- ton, and the subject matter most commonly dealt with is hunting and heroic behavior. The youth associations, in essence, own the masquerades. They organize the activities of the night, and it is their stories that the masquerades tell. Weeks prior to the fete, the youth organizations meet frequently, planning and choreographing the events of the masquer- ades. The youths of the kamalen-ton choose the cast of characters, the costumes, the stories, and the masks that will be used. They may choose to bring out and refurbish used masks or create new ones. Their mothers, wives, and sisters provide the textiles neces- sary for the costumes. Once the major planning is completed, the youth organizations split into smaller groups and work on the particular renovation or construction projects assigned to them. Throughout this process, the older men act as consultants, offering advice on the construction of the more intricate puppets.

The puppet masks of the Sogo bo are generally worn over the bodies of the performers (usually two men). The performer(s), surrounded by the wooden frame of their puppet masks, are hidden from view by straw and cloth which cover the frame.The head of the puppet is manipulatable , and from within, the performers move the puppet about in dance.


The Sogo bo performance takes place at night, and can carry on well into the early morning hours, consisting of more than twenty sets of dances. Called to the dance by the beat of the drums, the maskers, either individually or in small groups, dance in character. The large and powerful beasts lumber about slowly, majestically (the more powerful ones come out towards the end of the night), while the energy and spark of youth can be seen in the dance of the smaller animals. Each dance set lasts only five to ten minutes, and in between, the women’s chorus provide song (praise songs for the animals). The chorus, however, does not perform during the dance sets, the sets are without voice. It is the masks, the movement of the maskers, and the beat of the drums that tell the story.Untitled_Fotor

Malian puppetry features maaniw, “little people” or puppets in human form. They range in size, from small hand-held rod puppets to almost 6-foot tall figures. Maaniw play an important role in initiation ceremonies and often appear at nighttime on the backs of kalaka (small stages in the form of a body). They often speak of the individual’s place in society and teach morals.

Though there are certain tenets that are retained in the storytelling, it is by no means a static tradition. Puppet plays that were once held only on specified days are now held on weekends, to accommodate the schedule of those who have left the village to make a living in bigger cities. Modern issues are dealt with, and the plays continue to reflect the lives and times of the Bamana.


1244916533630_FotorThen I read about Yaya Coulibaly, 7th generation descendant of Mamari Biton Coulibaly (King of Segou region of Mali) who is the director of the Sogolon Puppet Troupe. After training at the National Institute of Arts in Bamako, Mali,  and l’Institute International de la Marionette in France he mastered the traditional Malian arts of puppetry.  It would seem he doesn’t rest with tradition either. Malian puppet performances are traditionally voiceless, but Yaya has chosen to integrate voice and performance. I realised I had heard of him before and then I remembered he had worked with Handspring Puppet Company, the people who created the horse puppets for War HorseThey collaborated on a piece call Tall Horse which blended two puppetry traditions: the Handspring work which is based in lifelike realism and the stylised, ritual rtallhorsebased puppetry of West Africa. The play’s narrative is of  a giraffe and its handler, Atir, sent as a gift from the Egyptian Pasha to the French King Charles X in 1827. Its journey took it via Alexandria and Marseilles, creating a sensation en route. Tall Horse premiered in Cape Town and then went on to tour the world. This blending of styles really appeals to me. I would have loved to have seen the play.

Many of you reading this will know of ISTA – the International Schools Theatre Association and they published a great article a few years ago by Laurie-Carroll Bérubé about her staging of Tall Horse which you can read here, Malian puppetry traditions.

Changing tack slight, as part of my research I came across this fascinating recording of Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler (Handspring’s founders) and others, talking about puppetry as a contemporary medium of communication and influence. Puppets and politics – fantastic! You will need a couple of hours, but it is really, really interesting and worthwhile.


I’ll finish with a few useful facts about Malian puppetry, taken from Bérubé’s article:

Boliw is the raw spiritual energy/ power contained within performance objects such as masks and puppets. It is believed that women possess boliw – because of their ability to give birth.

Castalet: the large body-puppet, which represents a gentle mythical beast. The body of the animal is a cloth and raffia-covered frame which conceals the puppeteer inside who dances, making the raffia skirt sway.

Merens habitables are the long- necked female characters of traditional Malian performance. Merens habitables are manipulated only by men and post-menopausal women because only they are able to control the boliw contained within the puppet.

Sogo Baw or Sogow (Big Beasts): these are large body-puppets (roughly 2 m long, 1.5 m high), generally representing bush, savannah or domesticated animals. Sogo baw can resemble mobile puppet theatres with small puppets on the larger animal’s back, manipulated from within.

Sogo Bo: the annual masquerade (the Animals come forth) held in June, just before the rains come to Mali’s Segou region

Critics In & Jury Out

So the previews are over and the critics have been in to see Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable. Now the fact that I am 9,500km away negates me seeing it so I have been avidly immersing myself (pun entirely intended) in the press and blogosphere.

It would seem the jury is out.  The theatrical event of the summer or the most over-hyped show of the year (lets not forget that promotional interviews and teasers were out in March)?

I will share one thing with you and give you the links to the rest. Make your own mind up. Here is a conversation between Natasha Tripney, William Drew, Stewart Pringle and Lauren Mooney that was published in Exeunt yesterday.

The Drowned Man: Playing the Game

Natasha Tripney: There were several moments during The Drowned Man where I felt as if I was in my own private movie. The soundtrack helped I think, – the Shangri-Las’ ‘Remember’ plays in my head often enough anyway – those finger clicks kicking in as I opened a door. The lighting, crepuscular, twilit, also played a part as I picked my way through an indoor glade, the ground underfoot loamy, or found myself in a diner, all Formica and bourbon and bubble gum, James Ellroy, Carson McCullers and Edward Hopper. I loved that. I could have played there all day.

Compared to their last major London show – The Masque of the Red Death at BAC, which is the only other Punchdrunk piece I’ve experienced (I missed Faust, sadly) – I got a lot out ofThe Drowned Man. I saw more action, so to speak, followed a couple of characters around (though didn’t find their arcs compelling enough to stick with them for too long), had my hand-held and my face stroked by a sequin-bedecked woman in a Red Room. Beautiful as the design was, I found Masque a hugely frustrating experience. I spent so much of my time in there, standing in glorious but empty spaces, arriving at scenes just as they’d finished and the one time I was in the ‘right’ place at the ‘right’ time I clearly stood in the wrong ‘place’ and got (quite roughly) elbowed out of the way by one of the performers. This didn’t really endear me towards them as a company.


So despite the oven-like temperatures, I enjoyed a lot about the experience. Some of the design was truly spectacular – I particularly liked the shrines and the scarecrows – the level of detail was delicious and for the first time I can grasp why people might become frequent fliers, returning multiple times. I think it was Ian Shuttleworth who said, when discussingMasque, that in order to get the most out of it you have to be good at following cues, chasing voices. I struggled with that in Masque, but I guess here I played the game better. It’s just a shame it took one deeply frustrating experience for me to figure out how to do that. Had I paid the best part of £50 in order to learn those lessons, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t feel quite so warmly towards it.

Stewart Pringle: Though I have some severe reservations on it as a piece of theatre, I had a pretty awesome time wandering around Temple Studios. I found the attention to detail just as arresting as I had in Masque, and the scale and scope even more breathtaking. I’ve read a few of the early blog reviews and I find it genuinely surprised that experiences like walking through a forest filled with camper-vans, sifting through the detritus of failed relationships in seedy hotel rooms and wandering through the back-lot Beamish of the street scene have been written off as if the show was just a few hours plodding around a dingy warehouse.

I saw far more action and far more actors than I did in Masque, but in a way I think that took me out of the experience rather than enhanced my immersion. Because the actors interact with the audience so rarely, and because I find the dancey stylings of Maxine Doyle so insufficient and unengaging, I had far more fun when I was exploring on my own. There was a bunch of letters in the sort of broken down house area that I read through in their entirety, tracing a relationship from first wobble to total collapse, and I found the experience far more moving than any amount of repetitive interpretive dance.

I’m with Tash on the soundtrack, too. In the main I found it really enhanced the atmosphere, even if its repetitions eventually began to blur everything into a single tone. Because it essentially cycled around, or seemed to, it added to the creeping sense of dramatic stasis that built towards the final hour. Its lack of syncronicity with the action of individual scenes also created the occasional daft moment, such as finding I myself watching a man putting his trousers on in the back-room of a seamstresses to soaring, cinematic strings. They were very nice trousers, I suppose.


William Drew: So I find the idea of “playing the game” of a Punchdrunk show really interesting. My interpretation of this, which may not be what you meant, Tasha, is how an audience member makes sense of all the stimuli they fill their shows with, so they weave together a narrative for themselves. Bearing in mind, the world does not react to you, in the sense of your actions affecting outcomes, I can see two ways you can do this. The first is to explore the environment, looking for letters, imagining what was there before, finding the space in the absences for your own imagination; the other is to look for performers, to watch them and to follow them through a space. Let’s call the first exploration and the second active spectatorship (while recognising the extent to which it is “active” might be problematic but that’ll do for now). From what I understand, Stewart preferred the exploration so actually found the number of opportunities for active spectatorship unhelpful, at best, and an irritant, at worst. Tasha, on the other hand, you seem to have attempting to engage with bothMasque and Drowned Man as an active spectator and this is something that you feel you “failed” at with Masque but did more successfully in Drowned Man.

It seemed to me that Drowned Man was heavily weighted towards active spectatorship. Perhaps there were more actors or maybe it was simply the case that people know to “play the game” of a Punchdrunk show better by now so you get what amounts to a fairly respectable fringe audience in dogged pursuit of almost every performer. Like Stewart, my favourite moments were the ones where I could be alone exploring the world that the company have created. There were still treasures to be found in doing that. My favourite moment of theDrowned Man was where I sat on the one free chair in an audience of scarecrows. The impression that I was on a film set meant that I was able to suspend my disbelief for long enough to feel as if the “man” in front of me might turn around any second. That was thrilling. Generally though, I didn’t find there were as many pay-offs from exploring as there were in Faust and this leads me back to the possibility that the weighting is built into this show by the company in response to how most audiences want to behave within the environment. They are “failing” fewer people who want to play in that way by making it easier to “play the game” successfully but, in doing so, are they losing a little of the openness that was part of the appeal of their earlier work?

Punchdrunk: Sophie Bortolussi in The Drowned Man

Natasha Tripney: That’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought of it in quite those terms. Looking back on it now, my favourite moments of Drowned Man were actually ones of exploration – finding intricate origami flowers in a series of filing drawer or discovering a hidden shrine made of delicate curls of cassette tape. Even my lovely Shangri-Las moment was one in which I was alone in a space. I found Doyle’s choreographic style – all that sweaty sexual intensity – very samey after a while and not particular engaging and, as you said, Stew, far too reliant on archetype. I felt no need to pursue any one performer for long, though I gather this is an approach which lots of people favour. I think what worked for me here was the ratio between the exploratory/active elements and maybe the fact that I didn’t put pressure on myself to chase the action or attempt to piece a plot together as I did inMasque and therefore was far better able to enjoy what I was experiencing rather than fret about what I wasn’t. I think that’s what I meant by playing the game.

Lauren Mooney: This was my first Punchdrunk, Tasha, and I found all the things you said about the unsatisfactory nature of your Masque experience really familiar. Basically, it does seem like there are two ways to approach a show like this – following the actors or exploring the world. Not having done anything like this before, I found myself a little paralysed by indecision, and so didn’t have a fully satisfactory experience of either.

As I think most of us have said, I was completely blown away by the level of detail and the sheer SIZE of the thing; I’d spoken to a couple of people about what to expect, but nothing, really, could have prepared me for it. There was a kind of dream logic to the whole place that I found genuinely disturbing – I can’t put my finger on it, it was just an atmosphere, something perhaps to do with not being able to hear the actors when they spoke and being able to, to some extent, do what you wanted (go through people’s papers, letters, diaries) in a way that would be impossible or sociopathic in real life.

That and the music creeped me out all the way from the top of my spine to the bottom, and made my wandering experiences less adventurous than they should have been. When I was alone in the basement and found a cell full of small blocks, I had a powerful sense that the door was going to shut behind me, and wanted to be back in the safety of a crowd; when I was in a crowd, I wanted to be back on my own again, experiencing that waking-dream sensation.


My instinct to follow the actors and scenes was almost entirely, I think, for me, the wrong one – but it took me a long time to realise that most of the scenes were similar, repetitive, plot-light… Too long really, as by the time I’d given up on them and dug into some proper exploring, it was time for the finale. I basically expected there to be more plot than there was? So I was constantly chasing other scenes, thinking I was missing something, that some important brilliant theatre was happening in another room just outside my reach – when of course it wasn’t.

This is why I agree with Stew’s comment that it isn’t maybe good theatre so much as an amazing experience. The things I liked about it, and I liked lots in spite of a few reservations, weren’t things I can recognise as being connected in any way to theatre, the way a beautiful script or a brilliant performance can move you – it was a different sensation being evoked completely differently. It was the mood in the place that I found most effective, partly thanks to the music and partly, I must say, the masks. I know they’re controversial and uncomfortable, and I wear glasses so I had them squished onto my face a bit, but bloody hell, for me they were so effective. It made the audience look like part of the set design, for one thing, when seeing someone pulling a face at an inopportune moment might really take you out of it. (I have a lot of thoughts on this but actually, as I’m the only person new to Punchdrunk, I imagine everyone else is so Over the masks…)

So having said all this, I completely buy into the idea of revisits – I enjoyed my experience but it was quite unsatisfactory, and only gets more so the more I talk to other people – which brings me to pricing, something Stew talks about in more depth in his review. Isn’t there a way they could, for instance, charge far less for a return visit? If I’d paid £40 for that I would’ve been so cross, because I felt like I did it all wrong; I think the ticket costs are extortionate in general but doubly so because, as has been said, a single visit can be so frustrating. If they MUST charge such a lot, can’t they at least have an option of, you know, paying £10, £15 for a return visit…? I don’t know.

Having said all that, a friend of mine who also went to The Drowned Man is a gamer and his experience of things was very different to mine…

William Drew: There are some connections with videogames, yes, but there are also very significant differences in that the piece is no way interactive. It is a cliché of lazy videogame narratives to use letters lying around to fill in backstory for those of us for whom that matters. Going back to my previous categorisations of the way to experience a Punchdrunk show, I am drawing partly on Bartle’s gamer psychology. One of the categories of gamer types is the Explorer. These kinds of things are littered throughout videogame worlds to appeal to Explorer types. Other types, such as the Killer, will ignore them because they, you know, want to kill people (frowned upon in a Punchdrunk show, I understand, almost as much as talking).

Similarly, you might see a couple of NPCs (Non-Player Characters) arguing about something in a videogame. That argument is likely to be significant, possibly not to the main narrative, but could generate a quest you might want to embark on or the information contained within it might be relevant to another quest. I’m talking principally about the RPG genre because they tend to be more open world. In an adventure game, things are more linear and that makes it easy for everything to be relevant. What the environment tends to provide in both of these genres of games though is exposition and this is essentially all that Punchdrunk are giving us here. I don’t necessarily mean this as a criticism but I think it’s important to point out the ways in which The Drowned Man is as unlike a game as it is a piece of traditional theatre. I think a serious gamer who went there expecting a game would be as disappointed/confused as a hardcore theatregoer who went expecting some theatre.

Punchdrunk woman

Lauren Mooney: William – I very much agree, though the thing I meant about the difference in our experiences was actually less of a comment on the action than on our reactions to it. Oddly, I bought into the reality of the world almost too much – I rarely read the letters or looked through the drawers, so convinced was I in the bloody silly fibre of my being that this was wrong – or if not wrong, certainly something I risked being caught in the middle of and shouted at for!

Whereas my friend, Liam, who creates and designs games, had no such qualms and riffled away to his heart’s content. He even told me he regretted not trying on the clothes in the costume rooms – trying them on, which would NEVER have occurred to me in a MILLION YEARS.

I do think being predisposed to it by gaming might make you better at ‘playing’ a Punchdrunk show, but no, it certainly is nothing like actual gaming. Several people I’ve spoken to, in fact, said they would have liked to be given some kind of task, a thing to achieve or attain – whereas the show as it stands is essentially the opposite of this, telling people to ‘just go and mill about’. Visitors risk being paralysed by choice and ending up like me, waddling about lost and peering in through windows, looking for the party…

I think you’re right when you say that as either a gaming or a purely theatrical experience,The Drowned Man absolutely disappoints. Though I was hugely excited about the whole thing for a few hours after I left, just because it was so mad and huge and beautiful to look at, that sensation seems to fade hugely the further I get from it. It really does seem to me that most of the things I enjoyed most were general Punchdrunk things, not specific to this show, that I loved because they were new to me – and so ultimately, it does kind of seem like Punchdrunk have a set bag of tricks they wheel out every time, that only really impress the first time you see them. Apart from this, the quality of your experience is characterised by how well you play the game and…luck.

And the critics said:

Paul Taylor in The Independent:  For all its logistical flair the show is lacking in heart

Charles Spencer in The Telegraph: The masters of immersive theatre have returned with a show that will surely become a cult hit

Michael Billington in The Guardian: The choice of location is inspired

Sam Marlow, The Arts Desk: In their new show set in a seedy Hollywood outpost, Punchdrunk’s theatrical magic loses some of its allure

And in her blog for the Guardian, Lyn Gardner asks Does Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man live up to the hype?


Body Talk


I thought a while before posting today.  I read an article in the New York Times yesterday about a play touring in China. It is inspired by Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues which has become a cornerstone for a global movement to end violence against women and girls, V DAY. I only hesitated because the article is very frank, then decided that the power of theatre wins out against possible embarrassment. It is written by Didi Kirsten Tatlow:

Play Tests China’s Sexual Limits

BEIJING — There is a moment in the play “Our Vaginas, Ourselves” — a frank and funny exploration of feminism with Chinese characteristics — when the audience freezes in embarrassment. It is right after the actress Xiao Meili asks, “Do you masturbate?”

“It’s so hard getting people to answer that question!” Ms. Xiao, a 20-something with a razor-sharp black bob, exclaimed in an interview. “A lot of the time I had to answer myself,” she said of her scene, in which she plays a teacher.

During a recent performance in Beijing, Ms. Xiao paced in front of a white board demanding answers of her “students” — in reality a standing-room-only crowd of college-age women, some older women and several men. “A former professor of mine who attended told me she was terrified I’d ask her,” she said. Yet at one performance, “a woman yelled ‘Yes, it’s relaxing!”’ Ms. Xiao said, relishing the moment. “Totally spontaneous!”

Inspired by Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues,” with an English title that makes reference to the feminist classic “Our Bodies, Ourselves” — its Chinese title translates as “The Way of the Vagina” — the taboo-busting “Our Vaginas, Ourselves” was first staged in January at an L.G.B.T. center in Beijing before an audience of 50, said its producer, Ji Hang.

Written by four women, it is based on the life experiences of about a dozen contributors who gathered last autumn at Yiyuan Gongshe, a nongovernmental organization in Beijing, where they sat on cushions in a circle and talked.

“Writing this play was really just getting it down,” said Ai Ke, 29, one of the writers, who by day works for the publishing house of a major social science research institute.

It has been a hit. Since January, the amateur actresses and playwrights have performed it about 10 times in Beijing, Tianjin and Xiamen, to enthusiastic audiences numbering up to 150, who squeeze into small venues, sharing chairs and fanning themselves, as on a recent evening in the MOMA arts district of Beijing. But their performances have been limited in scale. The play has only been staged in unofficial venues because it was unlikely to get the necessary script approval from the authorities to show in official theaters, said Ms. Ji, the producer.

“We really want to enter the mainstream theater scene, but it’s impossible because the scripts would have to be censored,” she said. The subject matter is far too edgy to pass, she said.

While the play clearly owes a debt to Western feminism, what is striking — and exciting for the actresses and their audiences — is how thoroughly localized it is, with uniquely Chinese stories and a fast-paced style that at times recalls the xiangsheng, or crosstalk, of traditional Beijing humor, and rich, pun-laden language. Localization was crucial to the artists. “It’s so important to us I can’t even find the words to say it,” Ms. Ai said. “From the beginning we knew that was what we wanted.” The goal? Nothing less than to bring live, theatrical feminism — with its truths and relevance for hundreds of millions of people — to China. And to create an opportunity for personal transformation.

“It was important to us as a consciousness-raising exercise,” Ms. Ai said. “The personal transformation was No. 1.”

The localization is spelled out in the very first scene. “I’ll say it: vagina!” two actresses, called A and B, say in Mandarin, on a stage with minimal props. “I’ll say it in the Shanxi dialect: vagina,” B says. “In the Wenzhou dialect: vagina,” A says. Then it’s the Hubei dialect, and so on until they have uttered the word in 10 dialects, the audience reacting with delight to the shock of the familiar, yet rarely heard word, spoken in their hometown tongues.

Of the play’s 11 scenes, eight consist of original material, while two are Chinese translations of excerpts from Ms. Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues,” and one is from an earlier Chinese play inspired by the American play, Ms. Ji said. Humor figures highly, as in Ms. Xiao’s scene and another called “The First Night.” Six women identified by the letters A to F chat about how they lost their virginity. “After we got a room,” sighs E, using a Chinese euphemism for having sex, “he got a receipt,” indicating that the man planned to make the encounter tax-deductible. The audience erupted in laughter.

But there is also real tension, notably in scenes that focus on rape, health and abortion. In the final scene, “I Am an Intern in an OB-GYN Ward,” a medical student recounts her experiences at a hospital: An elderly woman embodying the Chinese cultural ideal of the selfless grandmother — who will not seek medical treatment for a gynecological problem — says, “Son, don’t spend the money on me. Spend it on my grandson to go to university.”

The student also describes helping at births; the horror of aborting fetuses because they are female; and young women coming for routine abortions, sometimes several a year. China has a high abortion rate, and as I gazed around the audience, all their laughter gone, I reflected that quite a few women there probably knew precisely what she was talking about.

In 2005 The Vagina Monologues was banned in Shanghai. In the same year it was also banned in Uganda.

The Vagina Monologues challenges India's taboos

The Vagina Monologues challenges India’s taboos









I have seen the play a couple of times and it is indeed a powerful piece. If you are interested you can read the original text here. A little bit of researching later, it became apparent to me just how widely the play has been performed – it has been translated into 22 languages (and counting). It has been running in India for 11 years. Following the awful Delhi rape case that made headlines across the world earlier in the year, it is not surprising that the play took on a greater importance, as this report, Vagina Monologues challenges India’s taboosfrom the BBC highlights. Indeed following it, Eve Ensler went to India to support the movement there:


A report from, When art impacts life, makes interesting and thought provoking reading as does a review of the play from the Times of India. Mind you, it has been banned in certain parts of India, as it has, believe it or not, in certain American states.

I was surprised to read that it has been staged in a number of more liberal muslim countries – Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia, but is banned in Malaysia.

And the purpose of my post? Simply to highlight the power of theatre to challenge orthodoxy and repression across the world.

The Show Must Go On

We’ve all been there – props not in place, mics failing, even scenery falling over. I remember being a lighting operator on a show set in a women’s toilet, where half the cubicles collapsed mid-performance! Things do go wrong in theatre all the time.


In this episode from the BBC’s Essay series, artistic director Josie Rourke talks about why working in theatre isn’t always plain sailing; what happens when disaster strikes and things go wrong. She explores mistakes of many kinds, not just the obvious ones that make an audience laugh, but the deeper rooted ones that start in the rehearsal room. Real food for thought!

Essay: On Directing – Josie Rourke

On a more frivolous note, recently in a newly opened production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the glass elevator got stuck just before the finale, leaving actors stuck in mid-air. The show was halted for 6 minutes while the problem was solved and apparently the apologetic stage manager received a round of applause from the audience. This prompted Lyn Gardner to write in her Guardian blog a piece entitled

Prop flops: why I love it when things go wrong on stage

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s great glass elevator may be unreliable – but misfiring props and mistimed cues can enhance rather than wreck a performance

The great glass elevator in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane malfunctioned last week, leaving Douglas Hodge’s Willy Wonka and the child actor playing Charlie stranded – and the performance halted – while they were rescued. They were lucky: when a flying carpet misbehaved during a Californian production of Aladdin, it tipped off the actors and left them hanging by their safety harnesses.


Provided nobody gets hurt or is humiliated (I once saw a poor Juliet lose her knickers when the elastic snapped), I must confess to having a sneaking enjoyment for moments that go wrong in the theatre. Doors that refuse to open, sets that wobble and revolves that malfunction may be a producer’s nightmare, but they demand spontaneity of a kind too much theatre spends its time trying, and failing, to emulate.

When things don’t go according to plan, it reminds us that what we are seeing is live and the actors are human. I once saw a rather dull revival of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of being Earnest during which the teapot handle came off as one of the actors was trying to pour the tea. The moment was galvanising for both actors and audience, and we all laughed a great deal more for the rest of the show. It made everyone relax.

Sound effects are particularly prone to mistiming: I’ve heard telephones ring long after they have been answered and heard gunshots after the actor has fallen to the ground in apparent agony.

images1None, though, has been as spectacular as the misfiring special effects during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII at the Globe in 1613, when a cannon was fired and a spark lodged in the thatch, causing the theatre to burn down.

The reality is that something often goes wrong during theatre shows, but it’s rare that the audience notices. It’s only when something goes badly awry with a big illusion such as the glass elevator in Charlie that we notice, or when the show doesn’t go on at all or has to be abandoned because of computer malfunction. Cancellation of a performance because of technical hitches can be really annoying for audiences (who can’t always return on another evening), but I reckon audiences are hugely sympathetic when a production has to be halted for a few minutes. Rather than detracting from their theatre experience, it often enhances it. Those who were at Charlie last Friday will be talking about it for years.

Gardner’s post in turn prompted the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) to confess a few of its own mishaps:

We do our best to make sure all our performances run smoothly, but live theatre does go wrong from time to time. Here are some examples…

RSC-logoOne night our current production of Titus Andronicus came to a temporary halt when Saturnius (John Hopkins) remained naked in the bath which became stuck half way through the trap.

The Merry Wives of Windsor has a chequered history. Both our recent production and Merry Wives the Musical(2006), were each stopped three times, through difficulties with the set or audience illness. Stage Manager Robbie Cullen said: ‘On two preview performances, I had to pause Dame Judi Dench mid scene. The second time she said to me (and the audience) “Oh not you again!”’

The hydraulic leaning book cases on David Farr’s The Winter’s Tale (2009) decided to lean (and start tipping the odd book) a scene early on a New Year’s Day matinee at the Roundhouse.

During one performance of Twelfth Night last year the on-stage lift cut out as it was coming down, leaving Andrew Aguecheek, played by Bruce Mackinnon stuck in the open cage lift. He and fellow actors improvised (not in iambic pentameter) before stage managers had to temporarily stop the show, to much audience laughter, until the lift was fixed. Later in the same performance Aguecheeck seemed to forget where the front of the stage was and fell off it – he was startled but unhurt.

job_0344Unfortunately when shows are stopped, it is not always for mundane reasons. I remember going to see a production at the RSC of a play called Singer, by Peter Flannery, starring Antony Sher which was stopped after about 20 minutes because of a bomb scare and we were evacuated from the theatre. The similar thing happened to me when I happened to be in London two days after the 7/7 bombings in 2005 and two performances I was about to see were cancelled because members of the respective casts were stuck on the Underground following subsequent terrorist alerts.

It has to be said though that sometimes mistakes are tragic. In 1673, Molière, the French actor and playwright, died after being seized by a violent coughing fit while playing the title role in his own play, The Hypochondriac. In 2008 a german actor slit his throat on stage in Vienna when the prop knife for his suicide scene turned out to be a real one. Thankfully he survived. However, sadly only a few weeks ago a performer with Cirque Du Soleil in Las Vegas was killed during a performance of Ka.


Stringing Up Royalty

I have spent quite some time recently looking at puppetry as a world theatre form and I have some great things to share – very varied, from the ancient and traditional, to the contemporary and technological. I have always been fascinated by puppets, right from being very young and even now I have puppets in my house, collected from across the globe. There is something quite primal about the way they can be brought to life.

I am going to start with a puppet tradition that goes back at least 700 years. In Myanmar/Burma puppet plays have been performed since at least the 1400s. In the 1700s, the royal court began to formally sponsor and regulate the puppet theatre, causing it to quickly grow in prestige.

Htwe Oo Myanmar puppeteers perform a group dance of handmaiden puppets

Htwe Oo Myanmar puppeteers perform a group dance of handmaiden puppets

The Burmese court was concerned with preserving the dignity of its members and marionettes were often used to preserve the esteem of a person who had erred. For instance, the emperor could reprimand his children or his wife in this way by asking the puppeteers to put on a parable correcting errant children or careless wives about their reckless ways. While the reprimand would be obvious to anyone who was “in the know” it would largely pass unheeded by the people looking on, something that had a great deal of value in a court that could, and did contain hundreds of people.


The Burmese marionettes also served as a conduit between the ruler and his subjects. Many times, people would ask the puppeteers to mention in a veiled fashion a current event or warning to the ruler. In this way, information could be transferred on without any disrespect. A marionette could say things that a human could never get away with.

In many ways, the Burmese marionette troupes replaced the actors of the time. It was considered a beheading offense to put your head above royalty, a fact which made standing on a stage difficult to say the least. Similarly, the laws of Burma were such that an actor could not wear full costumes if they were playing figures like royalty or holy men. While both of these facts would hamper the movement and stylings of a human actor, marionettes were not bound by such things and thrived in the vacuum.

In the 1800s, puppet theatre was considered the most highly developed of the entertainment arts, and was also the most popular. Though no longer as popular today, the tradition is still maintained by a small number of performing troupes.

A Burmese puppet troupe includes puppet handlers, vocalists, and musicians. Plays are based on Buddhist fables, historical legends, and folktales, among other stories. The shows are performed for adults and children together, and typically last all night.

The Burmese puppetry figures of “nat-ga-daw,” or the spiritual medium, at Khin Maung Htwe’s home theatre

The Burmese puppetry figures of “nat-ga-daw,” or the spiritual medium, at Khin Maung Htwe’s home theatre

The puppets themselves are marionettes, ranging in height from about one to three feet. Nearly all are stock figures, changing their names but keeping their characteristics for each play. Some of these puppet types have been standard for centuries—especially those developed from Buddhist fables, which probably formed the puppeteers’ first repertoire.

As Myanmar emerges from years of political and social isolation, it is not surprising that traditional puppet troupes are emerging as a potential tourist draw (as they are in other countries across the world). However, it is clear this is also being done by a drive to hold on to centuries of cultural tradition. Two companies that are particularly gaining a reputation are the Mandalay Puppet Theatre and Htwe Oo Myanmar. The website of the former is packed full of information from how to make your puppet (provided you are a master craftsperson) to how to manipulate them, to a description of all the puppet characters.


A transcript of this video can be found here.

On Saturday, The Irrawaddy published an article by Kyaw Phyotha about U Khin Maung Htwe who founded Htwe Oo Myanmar

Bringing Myanmar Puppetry Back to Life

YANGON — Sitting in his makeshift theater at his home near downtown Yangon, U Khin Maung Htwe is dreaming big.

“I want to have a museum or center focused on Myanmar puppetry,” he said, caressing a stringed wooden white horse, one of the figures from a set of 28 Myanmar marionettes.

As well as running a theater, U Khin Maung Htwe is director of the Yangon-based marionette troupe Htwe Oo Myanmar. “Here in Myanmar, there’s no place to go for anyone, both locals and foreigners, who want to learn about the arts,” he laments.

Khin Maung Htwe poses with puppet U Min Kyaw, one of the famous pantheon of 37 spirits, who is fond of drinking and merrymaking

Khin Maung Htwe poses with puppet U Min Kyaw, one of the famous pantheon of 37 spirits, who is fond of drinking and merrymaking

When he established the troupe in 2006, the one-time sailor’s ambition was more humble: He wanted to showcase Myanmar’s traditional performing arts to tourists in a fitting environment.

“I did it because I wanted to see people enjoy our puppetry in the way it is supposed to be enjoyed,” he said, explaining that hotels and expensive restaurants offer so-called traditional puppet shows to attract foreigners. “They treat puppetry like a side-dish to tourism.”

After struggling for seven years to get his idea off the ground—including making 10 overseas trips, from Thailand to Austria—Htwe Oo Myanmar has gained popularity internationally. Visiting Europe, he says, opened his eyes to the importance of opening a center to preserve the art form.

“After visiting puppet museums [in Europe], I have a burning desire to have a center for teaching, preserving and showcasing our puppetry here,” he said. “It would be very convenient for us to pass the arts on to younger generations.”

Myanmar puppetry, known as Yoke Thay, has a long history dating back more than 500 years. In a similar fashion to other folk plays around the world, Yoke Thay functioned as both royal entertainment and mass media, spreading stories of current events.

But Myanmar’s tradition of puppetry is also unique.

“Our tradition is unlike any other puppetry from neighboring countries. Ours has its own unique styles in every respect, including the way to manipulate the puppets and their design,” said U Chit San Win, the author of “Yanae Myanma Yoke Thay Thabin” (“Myanmar Puppet Theater Today”). “In our Yoke Thay you can enjoy all the Myanmar arts, like dancing, music, sculpture, sequin embroidery and painting.”

The puppetry performance of ba-lu, or ogres

The puppetry performance of ba-lu, or ogres

U Chit San Win says Yoke Thay is not on the verge of extinction due to a number of puppetry courses taught at universities. But in general, he says, the traditional arts are unfashionable.

“Young people find it very boring and difficult to understand because even today the Myanmar puppet performance is still very traditional and using old Myanmar [language],” he said. “This means Yoke Thay has seen a serious decline in local patronage and it survives on tourism.”

This could explain why Htwe Oo Myanmar has battled for years to recognition at home, even as it has found interest abroad. When Cyclone Nargis hit the Ayeyarwady Delta in 2008, causing tourist numbers to fall, the troupe was forced to move to U Khin Maung Htwe’s living room, now hastily converted into a stage when tourists arrive.

He said while neighboring countries such as Thailand and Vietnam are attracting international visitors with their puppetry, the Myanmar government does little to promote its traditional performing arts, “because they are paranoid about being labeled a ‘puppet government,’” U Khin Maung Htwe said.

Puppet 4

More than two years after Myanmar’s military junta handed over power to a nominally civilian government, many still wonder if the current administration isn’t just a puppet of former military strongman Snr-Gen Than Shwe.

“Instead of what they are doing now, the government should have more concrete plans for our Yoke Thay,” U Khin Maung Htwe suggested. He sees a puppet museum or center becoming a focal point for puppet masters in the country to collaborate with each other to preserve and promote the arts.

“It would help us generate ideas about how to breathe new life into our dying arts, too,” he added.


Heads Above Water

I make no apologies for a very ‘British’ post today. One of my favourite theatre companies, Punchdrunk (I’ve mentioned them here a few times before) are about to open a new show, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable.


My friend and colleague Sara saw their production of Faust and still rates it as one of the best pieces of theatre she has ever seen. In The Observer today Liz Hoggart writes a profile of Felix Barrett, Punchdrunk’s founder and artistic director.

Felix Barrett: the visionary who reinvented theatre

The founder of the Punchdrunk company has no time for stages or even seats. Their ‘immersive’ style has had huge influence in theatre and beyond. And their new show is their most ambitious yet

‘We’re trying to build a parallel universe,” explains Felix Barrett, founder and artistic director of Punchdrunk. “For a few hours inside the walls, you forget that it’s London 2013 and slip into this other place.”

Felix Barrett Punchdrunk

An elfin 35-year-old, with long, straggly hair and beard, Barrett is the man who changed British theatre, when he set up Punchdrunk in 2000, pioneering a form of “immersive” or “promenade” theatre. Their latest show, The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, a walk-through tour of a seedy 1960s film studio, opens to the critics this month.

The three-hour performance will play out over four floors of a former sorting office next to Paddington station, west London. Co-directed by Barrett and long-time associate Maxine Doyle, and inspired by Georg Büchner’s anti-war fable, Woyzeck, it’s their first major London show for six years, and biggest to date. It has, Barrett admits, the budget of a small film.

Punchdrunk want to take immersive theatre to a whole new level. A night in their company doesn’t involve a stage, a programme, an ice cream at the interval – or even a seat. They find empty buildings, fill them with richly detailed sets and performers and then set the audience loose – wearing masks. The thrill comes from not knowing what’s round the corner or how you’ll react when you find it. “In the theatre, you sit there closeted and you switch off part of your brain because you’re comfortable,” says Barrett. “If you’re uncomfortable, then suddenly you’re eager to receive.”

Even if you’ve never seen one of their wildly inventive shows, you will have felt their influence through advertising, music videos and festivals. Everyone these days wants to copy the Punchdrunk magic. The Drowned Man has already sold 50,000 tickets. For the next five months, a cast of 34 dancers and actors will lead 600 people a night around 200,000 sq ft of warehouse.


Arguably Punchdrunk attract people who would normally run a mile from high-concept theatre. Their influences come from B movies, computer gaming and gothic novels. “It’s theatre for people who like theatre but don’t particularly like theatres,” says Colin Robertson, TV editor of theSun, an early fan. “Punchdrunk is theatre for the warehouse party generation. It has that DIY, chaotic feel about it that is so far removed from traditional stuffy theatre.”

Punchdrunk’s promenade productions have included Faust (where audiences explored an east London tobacco warehouse filled with scenes from Goethe’s play), The Masque of the Red Death (based on the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, staged in Battersea Arts Centre), andThe Duchess of Malfi (a collaboration with English National Opera in old pharmaceutical premises in Docklands). But it was their off-Broadway hitSleep No More – a spin on Macbeth that’s still packing audiences into a former warehouse in New York – that brought them celebrity attention.

The New York Times called it “a voyeur’s delight. Messes with your head as thoroughly as any artificial stimulant. Spectacular!” About 200,000 people have attended, including Justin Timberlake and Matt Damon. In many ways, Punchdrunk became the Banksy of the theatre world.

They’ve spawned countless imitators – from Secret Cinema and Gideon Reeling (Punchdrunk’s sister company) to You Me Bum Bum Train. Also, Rupert Goold’s Headlong company (EnronThe Effect) emerged at the same time.

Barrett founded Punchdrunk after studying drama at Exeter University. Dissatisfied with conventional venues, he fell in love with site-specific theatre. He staged an immersive take on the proto-expressionist masterpiece Woyzeck in an old Territorial Army barracks in Exeter as part of his theatre degree finals. The police turned up – “with dogs and everything,” he recalls fondly.

Paul Zivkovich and Kate Jackson in The Drowned Man A Hollywood Fable.

Paul Zivkovich and Kate Jackson in The Drowned Man A Hollywood Fable.

Along with Shunt, Punchdrunk led the charge for a wave of immersive, experiential theatre that aims to erase the fourth wall as much as possible. From the start, Barrett and his team knew how to create interventions on an outrageously grand scale with minimal resources, recalls David Benedict, London theatre critic for Variety. “Fringey sounds like they were a bit silly and small and fiddled around on the fringes. From the start, they were a bunch of people with quite a big idea and they pursued it with a) great imagination and b) rigour. They weren’t the first people to do site-specific, far from it, but they were the first to be bold enough to think big. The fact that they didn’t have any money released them in a weird way.”

The National’s director, Nicholas Hytner, was an early supporter. In 2005, he attended The Firebird Ball, inspired by Romeo and Juliet and Stravinsky’s The Firebird, in a disused south London factory. “I was suspicious when I was made to put on my white mask,” he says. “Maybe I was right to be. It turned out to represent the polar opposite of everything I’ve ever been able to do in the theatre and I was totally exhilarated – high on every moment of it.”

Hytner’s decision to have the National endorse the company led to their breakthrough show, 2006’s Faust, occupying five floors of a Wapping warehouse, and, a year later, The Masque of the Red Death.

It was this talent for getting into bed with very smart co-producers that set Punchdrunk apart, says Benedict. “It gave them the clout and the heft and the publicity. They never did upstairs rooms. When they did The Masque of The Red Death in 2007, they had the whole of the Battersea Arts Centre. And that was a very fashionable producing house because they’d already created mega-hit Jerry Springer: The Opera.”

In 2009, the Old Vic and Punchdrunk collaborated on a show in Tunnel 228 with contemporary artists underneath Waterloo station. It became more than a hit show, it became one of the “must-see” experiences in the capital.

Punchdrunk’s rise has coincided with audiences becoming much more adventurous over the past decade. It’s tricky to define cause and effect. Punchdrunk have driven the wish for something bold, but they also emerged at a time when audiences were tiring of sitting down in front of a proscenium arch before slipping out for the interval drink. And Punchdrunk became a byword for all that was different from that tradition.

Barrett gives little away about his personal life. We know he’s married to Kate, a media producer at the Tate, with a child. Although, touchingly, he reveals his company organised his “prenuptial bachelor party” (also known as a stag do) as a theatrical event, a journey that started with a key in the post and ended with 30 men in masks kidnapping him and forcing him to unlock a trunk full of his most embarrassing possessions. “It was the best show I’ve seen in the last 10 years,” says Barrett.

The darlings of British theatre have their critics, of course. TheGuardian‘s Michael Billington queried the “fairground shock tactics” of It Felt Like a Kiss (2009), their collaboration with documentary film-maker Adam Curtis, and musician Damon Albarn for the Manchester international festival, calling it “a real dog’s dinner of a show”. And theDaily Telegraph said of their 2010 foray into experimental opera, The Duchess of Malfi, that “the bag of tricks [was] looking increasingly jejune”.

Faust Punchdrunk 2006

Faust Punchdrunk 2006

“The trouble with a lot of site-specific theatre is it’s posh haunted house, with people rushing at you in corridors,” says Benedict. “When it works, you forget that, but it needs to be done with theatrical rigour.”

There have also been accusations of selling out. They have done corporate pieces for Stella Artois and W Hotels, while, at Sleep No More,tickets sell for $100, with programmes at $20. In London, with the National Theatre as co-producer, tickets for The Drowned Man are £39.50 to £47.50. Barrett claims sponsorship funds the experimentation, stressing that, as a charity, the company ploughs the money back. But they have, he concedes, paid attention to the bad press.

There is a sense that The Drowned Man needs to be a critical hit to restore some flagging confidence. Says Benedict: “The first time you go to a Punchdrunk show, it blows your head off, but the trouble is it’s a bit of a cliche if you’re relying on no one having seen it before. ”

In wider terms, perhaps we may see a return to straight theatre after a decade of playful deconstruction. Even if this happens, Punchdrunk will have made a fundamental mark – shaking up theatre and routine practice like none of their peers.

In another interview last week in The Independent entitled All the disused building’s a stage: Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man is their most ambitious show yet,  Barrett talks to Alice Jones about why they keep pushing the boundaries.

The show is currently in preview so there are no official reviews. However here is one unofficial written by a member of a preview audience. The twittersphere  likes it too!


THE PUNCHDRUNK FILE (Courtesy of Liz Hoggart and The Observer)

Born Founded in 2000 by Felix Barrett. His regular collaborator is choreographer Maxine Doyle. They have come to be seen as the leading lights of a form of “immersive theatre”, where the audience is not seated but is freer to roam the performance site.

Best of times Their Hitchockian take on MacbethSleep No More, staged off-Broadway in 2011, seduced Matt Damon, Natalie Portman and Justin Timberlake to join the masked revels.

Worst of times Punchdrunk’s involvement in the launch of a new lager and a Louis Vuitton shop in central London raised eyebrows. Directing the Colombian pop diva Shakira’s world tour was, Barrett admits, “a tough experience”.

What they say “We aim to provide the quality of the West End while avoiding packing the audiences in like sardines.”

What others say “Punchdrunk have provided some of my most exciting dramatic experiences over the past decade. We are delighted to be working with them again in London after a six-year gap while they wowed New York; I can’t wait to see their new theatrical adventure.” Nick Hytner