Chris Pirie’s company, Green Ginger, is presenting Rust, a grotesque and funny story of rival pirate radio stations, at the Pleasance. The company has been making work for both adults and children for the last 30 years, but it’s only recently, says Pirie, that the market for adult puppetry has really opened up in this country. “It’s very much a sea change – of which Suspense is a fine example. Puppetry’s grown up.”
The last few years have witnessed the success of puppet-integrated productions including Greg Doran’s RSC staging of Venus and Adonis, the National Theatre’s War Horse, now running in the West End, and the comedy musical Avenue Q. Puppetry, those involved with Suspense are thrilled to note, is no longer considered purely a form of children’s entertainment, but a bona fide dramaturgical tool in its own right, at least in the eyes of some enlightened theatre makers and audiences.
There is still much to be done, however, when it comes to opening audiences up to the full potential of this art form. Alissa Mello is artistic director of New York company Inkfish, whose show, The Brain, is playing at the Little Angel Theatre, Suspense’s primary venue. She is also conducting research into contemporary European adult puppet theatre at Royal Holloway’s Department of Theatre and Drama, so is ideally placed to comment on how the situation in the UK differs from that on the continent.
“In Europe, there is a wide festival circuit which includes an extensive array of adult puppetry. That’s why companies like Green Ginger and Faulty Optic are very well known outside of the UK. It’s only been recently that there’s been an emergence of festivals here that focus on that.” Suspense in particular, she says, is a fantastic opportunity for London audiences to see what adult puppet theatre can do. “Having this festival in London is going to be very important for the community”.
Gerard Schiphorst is co-artistic director of TAMTAM Objektentheater, a puppetry company from the Netherlands, here presenting To have or not to have?, what the publicity material calls a ‘rusty fairytale of beautiful images’. He acknowledges that a London-based adult puppetry festival has been “missing” from the circuit and will be of huge benefit in opening puppetry up to adult audiences, but he is also excited about Suspense because of its potential as a site for the exchange of ideas between European and British companies. As well as the packed programme of performance during the 10 days of Suspense, several workshops, masterclasses and post-show talks (including those following the two performances of To have or not to have? on 6 November) are taking place with the aim of developing puppet theatre practice and the discourse surrounding it.
The UK has a number of other highly acclaimed puppetry festivals, but aside from Suspense, only one of them, the Scottish Manipulate Visual Theatre Festival, focuses on adult work. Steve Tiplady of Indefinite Articles believes that Suspense “will be the proving ground, if you like. It feels like it could be something really big and be the lightening rod for the whole adult puppetry movement”.
Before the Little Angel’s current artistic director, Peter Glanville, took over in 2006, Tiplady ran the theatre for two years. He is now back to present the partly improvised late-night show, Let Us Clay, at The Nave. Usually a show for younger audiences, but adapted for Suspense, Let Us Clay exemplifies the infinite capability of puppetry to entertain. His work appeals to adult audiences, Tiplady says, because “it’s got a whole imagination thing going on. They take real delight in being forced to do a bit of work and believe - in something being alive or not seeing the puppeteers. It brings audiences back towards their childhood in a way, where they were capable of believing a box was a rocket.”
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