How do you convince an adult audience to embrace puppetry?

It was Shakespeare that first drew me down an alley in Islington to the Little Angel Theatre (the self-declared home of British puppetry) in 2004. Its collaboration with the RSC on a production of Venus and Adonis for adults was nothing new but was a reve

Suspense London Puppetry Festival
Various venues

As the National Theatre celebrates its 50th birthday, it turns out War Horse has been its most successful production to date, in terms of bums on seats. Handspring’s horse puppets are beautifully constructed from cane and georgette, more like sculptures than real animals, and are manipulated in a way that brings them remarkably to life. Skilful puppetry is a kind of magic.

There’s no doubt that the show has expanded puppetry’s reach. Four million people have seen it worldwide since 2007 and it is currently playing in Birmingham, Berlin and Syracuse, New York, as well as in the West End. Up the road, Anthony Minghella’s celebrated production of Madam Butterfly has been revived at the Coliseum, another show that’s bringing puppets to the masses. Well, the opera-going masses, at least.

In both instances, the puppets represent things notoriously hard to work with – animals and children. Yet despite these significant inroads into the mainstream, puppetry still struggles to be taken seriously in the UK. Even puppeteers usually believe that adult puppetry appeals only to audiences willing to take a risk.

The age-old misconception that they’re just for kids also continues. Like most people in Britain, I find my experience of puppetry came from children’s television, but happily that experience has evolved. It was Shakespeare that first drew me down an alley in Islington to the Little Angel Theatre (the self-declared home of British puppetry) in 2004. Its collaboration with the RSC on a production of Venus and Adonis for adults was nothing new but was a revelation for me. It proved that puppetry could be sophisticated.

Shakespeare brings me down the alley again, this time for the Little Angel’s biennial Suspense London Puppetry Festival. The festival is decisively adults-only and this year’s ten-day offering includes a production of Macbeth.

The text is pre-recorded, limiting the live action to a series of mute images on simple tabletop spaces. At first the relegation of the words to a fixed soundtrack, however well read they are, feels like a heavy loss. But there’s a moment – I’m not sure when, it happens without your knowing it – when you become fully absorbed by the intricate and intimate scenes playing out before you.

The cast is part human, part bird – Macbeth is cockerel-like, Duncan is a swan. All are carefully crafted wood-and-fabric rod puppets, manipulated by three silent puppeteers. The puppets’ movements become more birdlike as they approach death. Macbeth flaps with fear as Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane.

Puppetry makes sense for a play dealing with matters of fate. This heightened the feeling that Macbeth is operating in a world where there are forces beyond his control. And as is well known, puppets give a good death. There’s barely any blood in this production, but some excellent corpses.

The murderous theme continues over the first weekend of the festival. The Shop of Little Horrors by Pickled Image is a comic horror – think Open All Hours meets The League of Gentlemen. Set in a dusty shop with explosive electrics, it features wonderful, larger-than-life masks and hair-curling eyeballs. Playing up to puppetry’s potential creepiness, the horrible history behind Albert Grimlake’s carved ventriloquist dummies slowly emerges. It’s great fun, made slick by adept lip-syncing.

Boris and Sergey’s Astonishing Freakatorium boasts miniature freaks, grisly killings and forced audience participation. Despite being just 40-centimetres high and lacking facial features, our hosts have strong stage presence. They are stitched from lovely old leather and it takes six puppeteers to give them boisterous life. Amid the silliness, and providing you can see (the action is smallscale and low down), Flabbergast Theatre’s puppetry is well observed and detailed.

Adult audiences in the UK are growing more open to puppetry but it’s still in a precarious place. The festival organisers concede a limiting factor for them is the volume of quality home-grown shows to programme. But this festival bolsters puppetry’s position, not least by serving as an opportunity for companies to showcase their work.

As at any festival, you will find earnest and self-indulgent shows here as well as intelligent ones, but it’s a good chance to sample established and emerging talent alike. And existing on the margins isn’t all bad.

The Suspense London Puppetry Festival runs until 3 November. For more etails visit: suspensefestival.com

Shadow play: the Great Puppet Horn explores climate change in 'Immigrants!'

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times