Puppet masters

The follow-up from the company responsible for <em>War Horse</em> doesn't quite come to life.

Handspring Puppet Company was always going to suffer from second-album syndrome as far as West End audiences are concerned. Their follow up to the smash hit War Horse is a quiet, recondite affair in comparison. Gay puppet love may not be everyone's cup of tea but prejudice (against puppets) aside, there are some interesting, if oddly uninvolving, ideas at play in this piece.

Written and directed by Neil Bartlett, Or You Could Kiss Me at the National's Cottesloe Theatre tells the story of Mr A and Mr B, who bear more than a passing resemblance to the Handspring founders, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones. Along with a posse of puppeteers (collective noun, anyone?), they perform on an unforgiving traverse stage, not only manipulating the puppets but also speaking on their behalf, role-playing scenes from A's and B's life together in South Africa and commenting on the action. Mr B is now dying of emphysema in a Port Elizabeth apartment and the play flashes backwards and forwards between the young couple who meet in 1971 and the endgame of 2036, by which time A and B have been together for 65 years.

Anyone who has spent time with the dying and has found themselves ransacking the past, having been denied a future, will at least recognise the valedictory element in this story. Those who have sat at the bedside of the terminally ill will understand Bartlett's preoccupation with breathing and in particular with the failing breath of Mr B. In fact, there are a number of lungs that pump away in the show, from the heaving ocean to the breezy strains of an accordion. Even the young lovers' squash match is conducted via a series of "fuck you's" on an out-breath.

Two pairs of mannequins (which are five-sixths life-size, to be precise) have been created for the piece, representing A and B at their physical peak and again at the time of Mr B's final illness -- reduced, shambling, deep furrowed. The joints and structure of the puppets are made visible, suggesting the biomechanics of ligament and bone, and there are some highly skilled manipulations -- such as young Mr B's high dive into the Indian Ocean -- where we get the full sense of an articulated body. The puppets' very lifelessness, of course, draws the eye to tiny, intimate movements and this finds its match in Bartlett's writing, which is at its best when evoking luminous details. Such details suit this meditation on the islets of memory, as does the spare design of the piece, where objects take on a strong synecdochic resonance. (A door latch stands for the apartment; hospital signage stands for the entire building.)

The puppeteers themselves move with an economical grace but their presence was an unresolved puzzle: one wondered exactly how Kohler and Jones felt about handling their Pinocchio proxies -- and in particular at their point of death. At times, the puppet masters were god-like manipulators, in clear control of events, which was maybe meant to be a tweak on the play's framing Ovidian myth of Philemon and Baucis, in which two old lovers ask the gods if they can die together. The gods' solution is to turn the elderly couple into trees, which woody ending clearly echoes the puppeteers' transformation into timber. There is more than a touch of self-mythologising in these mini-me surrogates.

Ajoah Andoh is the only human onstage who's not busy with puppets and she performs an MC-type role. Marked out from the rest of the cast by both gender and race, she's eminently watchable in her lively cameos but, as some strange recurring expert on decaying memory, it's as if she can't decide what tone to adopt and so she settles for cross. She also appears to direct and decide on A's and B's lives at times and, with so many explicit layers of agency and control, it's small wonder we are hardly drawn in to the drama. The very refusal to name the characters pushes us firmly away. A crowd of puppeteers occludes the heavy puppet petting: it was hard to tell if those wooden tops actually, er, got wood.

There is stark beauty in lines such as the one the title is lifted from: "Or you could kiss me. There does have to be a last time. Has it happened already?" But despite its heart-rending subject matter, I was left largely unmoved. Like the puppets themselves, the show has clever connections but lacks a life-spark.

Show Hide image

Leader: Mark Carney — a rock star banker feels the heat

Rather than mutual buck-passing, politicians and central bankers must collaborate in good faith.

On 24 June, the day after the EU referendum, the United Kingdom resembled a leaderless state. David Cameron promptly resigned as prime minister after his humiliating defeat. His closest ally, George Osborne, retreated to the safety and silence of the Treasury. Labour descended into open warfare; meanwhile, the leaders of the Leave campaign appeared terrified by the challenge confronting them and were already plotting and scheming against one another.

The government had not planned for Brexit, and so one of the few remaining sources of authority was the independent Bank of England. Its Canadian governor, the former Goldman Sachs banker Mark Carney, provided calm by announcing that Threadneedle Street had performed “extensive contingency planning” and would not “hesitate to take additional measures”. A month later, the Bank cut interest rates to a ­record low of 0.25 per cent and announced an additional £60bn of quantitative easing (QE). Both measures helped to avert the threat of an immediate recession by stimulating growth and employment.

Since then the Bank of England governor, who this week gave evidence on monetary policy to the economic affairs committee at the House of Lords, has become a favoured target of Brexiteers and former politicians. Michael Gove has compared Mr Carney to a vainglorious Chinese emperor and chided him for his lack of “humility”. William Hague has accused the Bank of having “lost the plot” and has questioned its future independence. Nigel Lawson has called for Mr Carney to resign, declaring that he has “behaved disgracefully”.

At no point since the Bank achieved independence under the New Labour government in 1997 has it attracted such opprobrium. For politicians faced with the risk, and the reality, of economic instability, Mr Carney and his colleagues are an easy target. However, they are the wrong one.

The consequences of loose monetary policy are not wholly benign. Ultra-low rates and QE have widened inequality by enriching asset-holders, while punishing savers. Yet the economy’s sustained weakness as well as poor productivity have necessitated such action. As Mr Osborne consistently recognised when he was chancellor, monetary activism was the inevitable corollary of fiscal conservatism. Without the Bank’s interventionism, government austerity would have had even harsher consequences.

The new Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has rightly taken the opportunity to “reset” fiscal policy. He has abandoned Mr Osborne’s absurd target of seeking to achieve a budget surplus by 2020 and has promised new infrastructure investment in his Autumn Statement on 23 November.

After years of over-reliance on monetary stimulus, a rebalancing is, in our view, necessary. Squeezed living standards (inflation is forecast to reach 3 per cent next year, given the collapse in the value of sterling) and anaemic growth are best addressed through government action rather than a premature rise in interest rates. Though UK gilt yields have risen in recent weeks, borrowing costs remain at near-record lows. Mr Hammond should not hesitate to borrow to invest, as Keynesians have long argued.

The Bank of England is far from infallible, of course. In recent years, its growth and employment forecasts have proved overly pessimistic. Mr Carney’s immediate predecessor, Mervyn King, was too slow to cut rates at the start of the financial crisis and was ill-prepared for the recession that followed. Central bankers across the developed world, most notably the former Federal Reserve head Alan Greenspan, have too often been treated as seers beyond criticism. Their reputations have suffered as a consequence.

Yet the principle of central bank independence remains one worthy of defence. Labour’s 1997 decision ended the manipulation of interest rates by opportunistic politicians and enhanced economic stability. Although the Bank’s mandate is determined by ministers, it must be free to set monetary policy without fear of interference. The challenge of delivering Brexit is the greatest any British government has faced since 1945. Rather than mutual buck-passing, politicians and central bankers must collaborate in good faith on this epic task.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage