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.

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How power shifted dramatically in this week’s Game of Thrones

The best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry.

Last week’s Game of Thrones was absolutely full of maps. It had more maps than a Paper Towns/Moonrise Kingdom crossover. More maps than an Ordnance Survey walking tour of a cartographer’s convention. More maps than your average week on CityMetric.

So imagine the cheers of delight when this week’s episode, “Stormborn”, opened with – yes, a map! Enter Daenerys, casting her eyes over her carved table map (Ikea’s Västeross range, I believe), deciding whether to take King’s Landing and the iron throne from Cersei or a different path. After some sassy debates with Varys over loyalty, more members of her court enter to point angrily at different grooves in the table as Dany and Tyrion move their minature armies around the board.

In fact, this whole episode had a sense of model parts slotting pleasingly into place. Melisandre finally moved down the board from Winterfell to Dragonstone to initiate the series’ most inevitable meeting, between The King of the North and the Mother of Dragons. Jon is hot on her heels. Arya crossed paths with old friends Hot Pie and Nymeria, and the right word spoken at the right time saw her readjust her course to at last head home to the North. Tyrion seamlessly anticipated a move from Cersei and changed Dany’s tack accordingly. There was less exposition than last week, but the episode was starting to feel like an elegant opening to a long game of chess.

All this made the episode’s action-filled denouement all the more shocking. As Yara, Theon and Ellaria dutifully took their place in Dany’s carefully mapped out plans, they were ambushed by their mad uncle Euron (a character increasingly resembling Blackbeard-as-played-by-Jared-Leto). We should have known: just minutes before, Yara and Ellaria started to get it on, and as TV law dictates, things can never end well for lesbians. As the Sand Snakes were mown down one by one, Euron captured Yara and dared poor Theon to try to save her. As Theon stared at Yara’s desperate face and tried to build up the courage to save her, we saw the old ghost of Reek quiver across his face, and he threw himself overboard. It’s an interesting decision from a show that has recently so enjoyed showing its most abused characters (particularly women) delight in showy, violent acts of revenge. Theon reminds us that the sad reality of trauma is that it can make people behave in ways that are not brave, or redemptive, or even kind.

So Euron’s surprise attack on the rest of the Greyjoy fleet essentially knocked all the pieces off the board, to remind us that the best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry. Even when you’ve laid them on a map.

But now for the real question. Who WAS the baddest bitch of this week’s Game of Thrones?

Bad bitch points are awarded as follows:

  • Varys delivering an extremely sassy speech about serving the people. +19.
  • Missandei correcting Dany’s High Valerian was Extremely Bold, and I, for one, applaud her. +7.
  • The prophecy that hinges on a gender-based misinterpretation of the word “man” or “prince” has been old since Macbeth, but we will give Dany, like, two points for her “I am not a prince” chat purely out of feminist obligation. +2.
  • Cersei having to resort to racist rhetoric to try and persuade her own soldiers to fight for her. This is a weak look, Cersei. -13.
  • Samwell just casually chatting back to his Maester on ancient medicine even though he’s been there for like, a week, and has read a total of one (1) book on greyscale. +5. He seems pretty wrong, but we’re giving points for sheer audacity.
  • Cersei thinking she can destroy Dany’s dragon army with one (1) big crossbow. -15. Harold, they’re dragons.
  • “I’ve known a great many clever men. I’ve outlived them all. You know why? I ignored them.” Olenna is the queen of my LIFE. +71 for this one (1) comment.
  • Grey Worm taking a risk and being (literally) naked around someone he loves. +33. He’s cool with rabid dogs, dizzying heights and tumultuous oceans, but clearly this was really scary for him. It’s important and good to be vulnerable!! All the pats on the back for Grey Worm. He really did that.
  • Sam just fully going for it and chopping off all of Jorah’s skin (even though he literally… just read a book that said dragonglass can cure greyscale??). +14. What is this bold motherfucker doing.
  • Jorah letting him. +11.
  • “You’ve been making pies?” “One or two.” Blatant fan service from psycho killer Arya, but I fully loved it. +25.
  • Jon making Sansa temporary Queen in the North. +7.
  • Sansa – queen of my heart and now Queen in the North!!! +17.
  • Jon choking Littlefinger for perving over Sansa. +19. This would just be weird and patriarchal, but Littlefinger is an unholy cunt and Sansa has been horrifically abused by 60 per cent of the men who have ever touched her.
  • Nymeria staring down the woman who once possessed her in a delicious reversal of fortune. +13. Yes, she’s a wolf but she did not consent to being owned by a strangely aggressive child.
  • Euron had a big win. So, regrettably, +10.

​That means this week’s bad bitch is Olenna Tyrell, because who even comes close? This week’s loser is Cersei. But, as always, with the caveat that when Cersei is really losing – she strikes hard. Plus, Qyburn’s comment about the dragon skeletons under King’s Landing, “Curious that King Robert did not have them destroyed”, coupled with his previous penchant for re-animated dead bodies, makes me nervous, and worry that – in light of Cersei’s lack of heir – we’re moving towards a Cersei-Qyburn-White Walkers alliance. So do watch out.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.