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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The marine, and human costs, of illegal fishing

Two new books take us inside the least regulated industry on the planet.

How big the sea is, how big. How poor a description that is, too, but the ocean usually resists description and words, no matter how many of its plains are named after Herodotus or how many fracture zones are called Charlie-Gibbs. It is rare to find good writing about the sea: that’s why everyone who tries quotes Conrad and Melville. It is rarer still to find good writing about the people of the sea, those strange creatures – strange to us, on our supposed maritime island, from where the ocean as a place of industry has long retreated – who set out to sea in boats and ships to make a living from it. These two, very different books try to bring them alive, although both really are about death.

Fishers and Plunderers is dense and dry, but within it are riches and horror. Seafaring is the second most dangerous job in the world, but deep-sea fishing is worse. In the UK, between 1996 and 2005, the rate of fatal accidents in the fishing industry was 115 times higher than that for the overall workforce.

The dizzying facts and stats come, and come again, like tides. We start with the ocean, and the fish in it – or the fish that used to be in it, before human beings learned to build vessels that could scrape the seabed, that could entangle dolphins, sharks and other unlucky passers-by. How wrong indeed was T H Huxley, the eminent biologist and chairman of a royal commission on sea fisheries, giving the inaugural address at the Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883, when he said: “I believe . . . that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say, that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish.”

He did not account for our greed. There are 16.5 million fishers catching 90 million tonnes of fish a year in four million fishing vessels. Pelagic long-lines, stretching dozens of kilometres, to hook tuna. Super-trawlers that can retrieve the equivalent weight of 20 busloads of fish a day, using nets 600 metres long. A biomass of predatory fish that has decreased by two-thirds in a hundred years. One-third of fish stocks fished unsustainably. Thousands of tonnes of “bycatch”, a benign word for a horrible thing: fish that are caught and discarded. An indictment of us.

But the sorry heart of this book lies with the fishers. There are the natural dangers that face them – ice, water and weather – such as the ones that overcame the crew of a British trawler near Iceland in the first half of the 20th century. They couldn’t beat the ice, so the skipper got everyone in the radio room, from where they phoned home. The crew “said goodbye, and eventually were just turned over and were lost”.

In every British fishing port, you will find a memorial to those lost at sea. There will not be a memorial to the fact that, in 2008, 75 per cent of those who died on UK boats were from eastern Europe or the Philippines. Fishing is the most unregulated industry on the planet, infected with abuse, slavery and worse. Some West African states lose 40 per cent of their catch to foreign vessels that come and steal from their waters, such as the bottom trawler Apsari-3, found fishing less than two nautical miles off the coast of Sierra Leone. The boat and officers were Korean, the crew from China, Indonesia and Vietnam. They had no contracts and no salaries, but were paid in packets of “trash fish” to sell ashore. They shared wooden and cardboard bunks in the hold. It was not an isolated case. Distant-water fishing nations operate vessels that abound with these ghosts: men trafficked or bonded into appalling conditions or contracts, stuck at sea for months at a time.

Modern shipping, with its “flag of convenience” system, makes slipperiness easy. Pay a fee, and you can fly the flag of any state and are then governed by its law at sea. Unscrupulous owners and operators can switch flag, name or identity almost instantly (hence “convenience”). Escape is easy for the criminals, and for the abused: often they go overboard. The illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing industry is worth up to $23.5bn each year, and it is extremely difficult to police. Much illegal fish from West Africa passes through Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, which has hardly any inspectors. It is repackaged, presented as legal catch and sold in western Europe. Some subheadings in the chapter on “Abuses and Slavery at Sea”: Abduction; Abuse; General; Beatings; Children; Death; Exploitation; Imprisonment; Murder.

Fishing has never been an easy life. It’s not that it was better then than it is now, but that now the abuse is industrialised, organised. The authors are a sober lot, and include Father Bruno Ciceri, who chairs the International Christian Maritime Association. The port priests are often the ones who save and soothe the fishers, though they can only do so much. I’m glad they do that. And I’m glad I don’t eat fish.

Julia Blackburn’s Threads is what you should read after finishing Fishers and Plunderers. Read it as an antidote to rigorous investigation, because this is a gorgeous, dreamy quest, for a man named John Craske, who was “a fisherman who became a fishmonger who became an invalid”. He also became an extraordinary artist, but one whose legacy is scattered and maligned.

Craske was born in Norfolk in 1881 and went to sea, like the rest of his family. At the age of 36 he fell ill with a mysterious illness, and never recovered. There were months of stupor and disability (Blackburn concludes that it was diabetes), of becoming, as his valiant wife, Laura, wrote, “very quiet. Sudden turns. Must get outside.” He did go back to sea, when his brothers took him on their fishing boat, lashing him to the mast in rough weather. He stayed for three months, rolling about in the hold or on deck until, somehow, he realised “it was not his home” and he came back to land.

Craske began to paint. They had no money, so he painted on what he had, which was the surfaces in his house. On the mantelpiece. On bits of cardboard. “On the seat of the chair he did a frigate in a storm.” His love of the sea and knowledge of it were clear, as a fisherman whom Blackburn interviews tells her. “You can’t put that energy out unless you’ve been there.”

This “quest” is meandering: don’t expect great events. The revelations are of emotion: sadness throughout for Craske’s life, though he may have been happy. Grief for Blackburn, who suffers a great loss while she is writing the book, so that from then on “grief is prowling close”. And joy, for being exposed to the embroidery of Craske, who took up the needle as he lay abed, finding a vocation. His little fishermen in their boats, sewn in careful stitches; his giant portrait of Dunkirk, with sweeping seas and tiny figures: they are amazing, yet were scorned by the museums and odd places where his work ended up, turned to the wall, ignored.

A doctor once told Craske’s wife that “he must go to sea. Only the sea will save him.” And it did, but not for long enough. We should thank Julia Blackburn for bringing back this quiet fisher and man of the sea; and Bruno Ciceri and his co-authors for exposing an unforgiving and cruel industry, where men die and the seas are depleted for the sake of our fish supper, out of sight beyond our horizon.

Rose George’s books include “Deep Sea and Foreign Going” (Portobello)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle