Posts Tagged ‘ War Horse ’

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bristol Old Vic

Handspring Puppet Company, dir. Tom Morris

How do you represent a charm on stage? How do you conjure a retinue of fairies? How do you show a man transformed into a donkey?

Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler of Handspring Puppet Company are at their best when tackling the impossible. Their best-known venture in the UK is War Horse (how do you create a horse with enough personality to charm an audience?) and now they’ve again joined forces with that production’s director, Tom Morris, with a very different story in their sights.

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems, at first, to be the perfect play for the Handspring treatment. It has illusion at its heart, questions of truth, identity and play-acting. And yet, it is also one of Shakespeare’s most human works: who doesn’t recognise their young self in the four impetuous lovers? Who hasn’t been angry, jealous, dizzy over love? And it’s this examination of a very human emotion that is lost in Handspring’s stagecraft.

Tom Morris’s production at Bristol Old Vic transfers the action to a workshop space. In Vicki Mortimer’s design the stage is surrounded by half-painted planks, tools, hanging dust-sheets. The set has the half-finished coming-into-being appearance that is the trademark of Handspring’s puppets. The cast wear loose jeans, dungarees and checked shirts.

The four human lovers – Hermia played by Akiya Henry, Demetrius played by Kyle Lima, Helena by Naomi Cranston and Lysander by Alex Felton – all have a puppet version of themselves. They each both play the role and operate their puppet self. Sometimes they direct their speech at an actor, sometimes their puppet. The result is distraction and dilution. During the one scene in which the mini-lovers are abandoned completely as the two men fight over Helena, who in turn scraps with Hermia, it feels like an exhilarating release and a pity that actors of this calibre are hampered by cumbersome – and largely unnecessary – puppets.

There are nice moments: when Hermia tells Lysander to ‘lie further off’ the two actors exchange puppets in a neat ornament on the theme of Shakespeare’s text.

Where the puppetry does work, however, is in Morris’s imagining of the fairy world. Puck is a pulsating jumble of floating workshop objects – now a dog, now a giant (although it also reminded me of the computer game character Rayman…). Peaseblossom, Cobweb and Mustardseed are at once endearing and menacing. One leans towards the audience sing-songing ‘kissy-kissy’ before its mouth snaps open to show sharpened fangs and its eyes turn red.

But Bottom is the heart of this production. His transformation is nothing short of astonishing. Miltos Yerolemou gets laughs in all the right places as we’re introduced to the band of mechanicals. But when he returns – as an ass, the audience’s laughter is disbelief, anarchy. Yerolemou is placed in a contraption which turns him almost entirely upside-down, his bare bottom (see what they did there?) in the air, two donkey ears attached to his feet. It is the most imaginative moment in the production by some way – though obviously presents some challenges to the actor as he tries to deliver his lines…

This is the not the dream Dream but there are moments which capture the vertiginous anarchy of Shakespeare’s story. There is a sense that Handspring and Morris are still experimenting and the end result might yet be an astonishingly rude, ravishingly sexy evening of revels. But it’s not there yet.

A Midsummer Night’s Drear runs at Bristol Old Vic until 4 May

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Or You Could Kiss Me, National Theatre: review

Cottesloe Theatre, National Theatre
Dir: Neil Bartlett with Handspring Puppet Company

After the galloping success of War Horse, Handspring Puppet Company, headed by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, have turned their attention to humans. Or You Could Kiss Me, scripted and directed by Neil Bartlett, documents the final days of a long-term gay relationship. Mr B is dying. He is sent home from hospital because there is nothing more the doctors can do. At home Mr A and Mr B laboriously try to remember the very first days they spent together.

The exquisitely carved wooden puppets are spell-binding: they seem to breathe, to fidget, to sigh. As Basil Jones writes in the programme: “it’s micro movement rather than the macro movement that is of interest to us”. And these master puppeteers hone in on the small gestures brilliantly. The signing of a form, the holding up of a photograph, the settling down to sleep: these acts are given poignancy and weight through the juxtaposition of their familiarity with the lifelessness of the puppets.

As Mr B fades we are introduced to the couple when they first met, as youthful 19 and 20 year olds. These two puppets stand tall and muscular, they exult in their vitality. A set piece in which the young Mr A dives into the sea is captivating – and would be impossible with real actors. Or You Could Kiss Me is at its best in these set pieces: as the young couple play squash; as the frail Mr B flicks through photographs trying to find something – though he doesn’t know what.

But elsewhere, interventions from Adjoa Andoh (as a nurse, a house-keeper, a taxi driver and…poet) irritate and Bartlett’s decision to use microphones is misguided. We want to learn more about the central pair but clumsy props and extraneous people stand in the way, blocking empathy: not least the three people necessary to operate each puppet.

This play should be heart-breaking and yet I doubt anyone in the audience shed a tear – indeed the people next to me left after 20 minutes. The play’s strength – the alarmingly lifelike puppets – is also its greatest fault. Neil Bartlett writes in the programme that his script changed “at the dictate of the puppets”. Bartlett was stunned into silence by the craft and elegance of Kohler and Jones’ art work and the result is a fragmented and almost non-existent narrative which never reaches its emotional potential. The big picture is sacrificed at the altar of the small-scale gesture.

3/5