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Pondering Puppets with Nina

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Handspring Puppet Company, creators of the amazing equine sculptures in War Horse, whose founders and master craftsmen, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, are based in Cape Town, return to London this week with their puppet and video version of Georg Buchner's Woyzeck.

But it's such a packed week of openings I may have to catch it on the extensive national tour which follows this week's performances at the Barbican.

Barbican regulars will be expert in all the more recent variations on the Expressionistic tragedy, as we have seen the wonderfully sardonic version by Robert Wilson and Tom Waits, as well as the Icelandic Vesturport's water-drenched spectacular, with music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis of the Bad Seeds.

Woyzeck is undoubtedly one of the key works of the modern theatre, so it will be interesting to see how the two-thirds life size puppets -- manipulated by actors -- convey the sense of despair and alienation that defines the hero's crisis.

You seem to be able to do anything with puppets these days. Nina Conti certainly can, as she proved in a sneak preview on Friday night of the film she's made about taking Ken Campbell's puppets to their resting home at a ventriloquists' convention in deepest Kentucky.

In fact, the film is as much a study of the ventriloquial art as it is a love letter to her mentor and inspiration, the madcap Campbell, who was being remembered on the third anniversary of his death at the Rich Mix arts centre on Bethnal Green Road by most of the usual suspects.

These included Jeff Merrifield, who's now written and published his own baggy memoir in praise of Ken, Nina, daughter Daisy Campbell and various actors and associates, including the School of Night, the improv team Campbell launched towards the end of his life.

Nina's film -- which, if I were Alan Yentob at the BBC, I'd snap up immediately -- includes a fair bit of her act, interviews with all the weirdo puppeteers in the Deep South, a seance in her hotel bedroom and a touching closure to her impossible love affair with Ken in the shape of a big bushy-eyebrowed puppet.

The rest home for puppets is called Vent Haven, and there was something spookily animated about the serried ranks of sculptured knee pals, a good percentage of them resembling Archie Andrews, the painted mannequin who was -- ridiculously -- a radio star, so we could never actually see how good a ventriloquist his master Peter Brough was.

This hall of abandoned puppets was as strangely moving and morbid as those dungeons full of skulls that are so much part of Mexican culture. Why? Because the best puppets are extensions of their human operators, as we know from War Horse, to the extent that they then acquire their own anthropological humanity.

And the highlight of Nina's act is the astonishing moment when she becomes her own puppet and is fully possessed by Monk, the ferociously potty-mouthed and mischievous monkey who wonders how Nina would feel about having her own fist shoved up her backside all day by someone who then put you in a dark box and went out and enjoyed themselves.

This investment of human, or even animal, affection and interest in an inanimate object is a fascinating aspect of puppetry and theatre. And not only that. I watched a blackbird in my garden this morning walk down a path and stop by a stone goose I'm very fond of called Gertie.

The bird, I swear, looked at Gertie as if to say, come on then, look lively, are you a real goose, or not? And I'm sure similar thoughts will fleetingly cross the minds of spectators watching Handspring's carved and illuminated figures in Woyzeck on the Highveld this week.


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