Review: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: A Reimagining (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

Master puppeteers Gyre & Gimble’s latest piece is a response to Max Richter’s acclaimed recomposition of Vivaldi’s masterpiece

We’re used to seeing puppetry in theatre for grownups these days, but it’s not often you find a show that dispenses with actors and puts the action entirely in the hands of its puppet protagonists. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons: A Reimagining, a wordless new work by puppetry company Gyre & Gimble, does just that – and so successful is this endeavour that you find yourself wondering if theatre should stop bothering with actors altogether.

I’m being facetious, but the power and eloquence of these puppets, designed by Gyre & Gimble co-directors Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié, is no joke. Larger, more anatomically complex versions of those little wooden mannequins used by artists, the figures are everyman (and woman), serving as mirrors to reflect our own experiences of love, grief, fear and peace as the simple plot unfolds before us.

Set to Max Richter’s "Four Seasons Recomposed", the minimalist composer’s 2011 take on Vivaldi’s most famous work, the show offers a series of vibrant moving snapshots of the lives of its puppet characters as they fall in love, start a family and are parted by war. Bill Barclay, director of music at Shakespeare’s Globe, has arranged this orchestral work for just six musicians playing Baroque instruments, plus synthesizer and octave pedals here and there, and the effect is intense: the 85-minute performance passes in a blur of laughter, sadness and wonder.

Constrained by the cyclical nature of "Four Seasons Recomposed", Caldwell and Olié have opted to make their story cyclical too. This feels forced at times, but they get away with it, thanks to the extraordinary nuance of the puppetry direction and the supremely skilful five-strong ensemble of puppeteers. Every move, from the flick of a cat’s tail to the terrified tremble of a child’s hand, is minutely observed. I could watch them all day long.

Action sequences, driven along by Vivaldi and Richter’s music, are equally enthralling, but offer a very different flavour: fast and furious rather than subtle and considered. Paul Wills’ set, a circle of tables cut up into quarters that the puppeteers shift around, plus a few panels that stand in for walls and ceilings, really comes into its own at these moments, the design proving almost as dynamic as the puppets that inhabit it. The production noticeably goes against convention by using electric light, embedded into the tables on which the puppets are manipulated, rather than just candles. As with the small amount of electronic music blended in with the Baroque, this is a welcome addition to the usual traditional way that the space is used – it’s only when the table lights begin to flash to evoke gunfire that it begins to feel anachronistic.

There’s nothing particularly original about combining puppetry with live music, yet what Gyre & Gimble have created here feels like something entirely new, a genre unto itself, and a really exciting one at that. I can’t wait to see what they do next.

Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons: A Reimagining runs at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 21 April 2018.