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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How Ken Loach's radical vision won him a second Palm d'Or

In Loach's films, authenticity is everything, and when his quest for realism pays off, there's nothing as raw in all of cinema.

On 22 May, at the age of 79, Ken Loach became the first British director to win the top prize twice at the Cannes Film Festival. His previous Palme d’Or, in 2006, was for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which dramatised the British occupation of Ireland and the origins of the IRA. This time, he won for I, Daniel Blake, the story of an ailing carpenter wrongly declared fit for work by the callous UK benefits system. No wonder Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, could issue only the most grudging acknowledgement, alluding vaguely to “Brit success!” in a tweet that failed to mention either Loach or the film.

The actor and Cannes jury member Donald Sutherland, on the other hand, called I, Daniel Blake “an absolutely terrific movie that resonates in your heart and soul”. It was an incongruous delight to see Loach posing before swarms of paparazzi. He usually disdains such frivolities; he might be red but he’s hardly red carpet. “As a film-maker, you’re forever involved in things that constantly inflate their own importance,” he once complained. Artifice, hyperbole and celebrity hold no appeal. Even film-making itself is full of irritating impediments. “If Loach could make a film without a camera, he would,” said Trevor Griffiths, who collaborated with him on Fatherland (1986).

Authenticity is everything. Unusually, Loach shoots in sequence, even if it requires moving back and forth at great cost between locations. In the days of celluloid, he would forfeit much of his fee to buy more film stock so that his beloved improvisations could roll on and on. When I visited the set of Carla’s Song near Loch Lomond in 1995, Loach gave the actor Robert Carlyle a good-natured ticking off for speaking to me between takes. “I’d rather he didn’t talk to anyone,” he said, “because then he’ll start thinking about things in terms of technique and who he really is, and it’ll all become conscious.”

When the quest for realism pays off, there is nothing as raw in all cinema. Think of the chilling attack on a family home by loan sharks in his 1993 drama Raining Stones, one of the films that began his most successful period, or the climax of Cathy Come Home, made for the BBC in 1966 and arguably his most groundbreaking film. As Cathy (Carol White) has her children taken off her by social workers and police, Loach films the entire traumatic episode in a wide shot with a hidden camera to preserve the reality. The movie led directly to the founding of Crisis.

Conversely, Loach at his worst can be one of the most simplistic sentimentalists out there. The characterisation of the salt-of-the-earth heroes in recent films such as Jimmy’s Hall and Route Irish, or the pantomime-villain Brits in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, shows what happens when action is overpowered by agenda.

Born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, Loach read law at Oxford but became seduced by theatre directing and acting: he was in a revue for which Dudley Moore composed the music, and understudied in the West End in One Over the Eight. He joined the BBC in 1963, where he brought extra earthiness to Z-Cars before finding his ideal outlet in The Wednesday Play slot that went out after the news. “We were very anxious for our plays not to be considered dramas but as continuations of the news,” he said. He made ten TV films under that banner but it was with his second movie, Kes, in 1969, that he took flight, proving that the gritty and the lyrical need not be mutually exclusive.

His politics was fully formed by this point. Though he has rejected claims that he is Marxist or Trotskyist, he admits that the analysis to which he turned after his disillusionment with Harold Wilson in the mid-1960s was a Marxist one. “The idea of a class analysis was the one we identified with,” he said of himself and his collaborators the producer Tony Garnett and the writer Jim Allen. “What we realised was that social democrats and Labour politicians were simply acting on behalf of the ruling class, protecting the interests of capital.”

This stance was consolidated by a series of run-ins in the 1980s, when he saw his work banned and thwarted by political forces. The transmission of his four-part 1983 television documentary Questions of Leadership, which asked whether the trade union leadership was adequately representing its members’ interests, was delayed and blocked by Labour string-pulling. Which Side Are You On? – a documentary about the miners’ strike – was rejected because of footage showing police violence.

Since his full-time return to cinema in the early 1990s, acclaim has eclipsed controversy. Even if he had not won a Palme d’Or, his stamp is all over other directors who have won that award in the past 20 years. The Belgian social realists Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta, The Child) have never hidden their debt to him, while recent winners such as Jacques Audiard (Dheepan) and Cristian Mingiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) exhibit his mixture of directness, compassion and realism.

If there is anything that defines him, it is his fight, which has made it possible for him to remain one of cinema’s angriest and most effective voices. “In the long term, I guess I’m optimistic because people always fight back,” he said. “The reason to make films is just to let people express that, to share that kind of resilience because that’s what makes you smile. It’s what makes you get up in the morning.”

“I, Daniel Blake” is released later this year

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad