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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After Strictly, I'd love to see Ed Balls start a new political party

My week, from babbling at Michael Gove to chatting Botox with Ed Balls and a trip to Stroke City.

If you want to see yourself as others see you, write a weekly column in a national newspaper, then steel yourself to read “below the line”. Under my last offering I read the following comment: “Don’t be angry, feel pity. Her father was a member of the European Parliament. Her older brother has been a member of parliament, a cabinet minister, a secretary of state, a historian, a mayor of London. Her younger brother is a member of parliament and minister for universities and science. She has a column in the Daily Mail. Can you imagine how she feels deep inside?” Before I slammed my laptop shut – the truth always hurts – my eye fell on this. “When is Rachel going to pose for Playboy seniors’ edition?” Who knew that Playboy did a seniors’ edition? This is the best compliment I’ve had all year!

 

Three parts of Michael Gove

Part one Bumped into Michael Gove the other day for the first time since I called him a “political psychopath” and “Westminster suicide bomber” in print. We had one of those classic English non-conversations. I babbled. Gove segued into an anecdote about waiting for a London train at Castle Cary in his trusty Boden navy jacket and being accosted by Johnnie Boden wearing the exact same one. I’m afraid that’s the punchline! Part two I’ve just had a courtesy call from the Cheltenham Literature Festival to inform me that Gove has been parachuted into my event. I’ve been booked in since June, and the panel is on modern manners. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, of course, but I do lie in bed imagining the questions I hope I might be asked at the Q&A session afterwards. Part three There has been what we might call a serious “infarction” of books about Brexit, serialised passim. I never thought I would write these words, but I’m feeling sorry for the chap. Gove gets such a pasting in the diaries of Sir Craig Oliver.

Still, I suppose Michael can have his own say, because he’s returning to the Times this week as a columnist. Part of me hopes he’ll “do a Sarah Vine”, as it’s known in the trade (ie, write a column spiced with intimate revelations). But I am braced for policy wonkery rather than the petty score-settling and invasions of his own family privacy that would be so much more entertaining.

 

I capture the castle

I’ve been at an event on foreign affairs called the Mount Stewart Conversations, co-hosted by BBC Northern Ireland and the National Trust. Before my departure for Belfast, I mentioned that I was going to the province to the much “misunderestimated” Jemima Goldsmith, the producer, and writer of this parish. I didn’t drop either the name of the house or the fact that Castlereagh, a former foreign secretary, used to live there, and that the desk that the Congress of Vienna was signed on is in the house, as I assumed in my snooty way that Ms Goldsmith wouldn’t have heard of either. “Oh, we used to have a house in Northern Ireland, Mount Stewart,” she said, when I said I was going there. “It used to belong to Mum.” That told me.

Anyway, it was a wonderful weekend, full of foreign policy and academic rock stars too numerous to mention. Plus, at the Stormont Hotel, the staff served porridge with double cream and Bushmills whiskey for breakfast; and the gardens at Mount Stewart were stupendous. A top performer was Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, who runs his own conflict resolution charity. Powell negotiated the Good Friday Agreement and also has a very natty line in weekend casual wear. Jeremy Corbyn has said he wants a minister for peace, as well as party unity. Surely “Curly” Powell – a prince of peace if ever there was one – must be shoo-in for this gig.

PS: I was told that Derry/Londonderry is now known as “Stroke City”. I imagined stricken residents all being rushed to Casualty, before I worked it out.

 

On board with Balls

Isn’t Ed Balls bliss? From originating Twitter’s Ed Balls Day to becoming Strictly Come Dancing’s Ed Balls, he is adding hugely to the gaiety of the nation. I did the ITV show The Agenda with Tom Bradby this week, and as a fellow guest Balls was a non-stop stream of campery, charleston steps, Strictly gossip and girly questions about whether he should have a spray tan (no!), or Botox under his armpits to staunch the sweat (also no! If you block the armpits, it will only appear somewhere else!).

He is clever, fluent, kind, built like a s*** outhouse, and nice. I don’t care that his waltz looked as if his partner, Katya, was trying to move a double-doored Sub-Zero American fridge across a shiny floor. After Strictly I’d like to see him start a new party for all the socially liberal, fiscally conservative, pro-European millions of us who have been disenfranchised by Brexit and the Corbynisation of the Labour Party. In fact, I said this on air. If he doesn’t organise it, I will, and he sort of promised to be on board!

 

A shot in the dark

I was trying to think of something that would irritate New Statesman readers to end with. How about this: my husband is shooting every weekend between now and 2017. This weekend we are in Drynachan, the seat of Clan Campbell and the Thanes of Cawdor. I have been fielding calls from our host, a type-A American financier, about the transportation of shotguns on BA flights to Inverness – even though I don’t shoot and can’t stand the sport.

I was overheard droning on by Adrian Tinniswood, the author of the fashionable history of country houses The Long Weekend. He told me that the 11th Duke of Bedford kept four cars and eight chauffeurs to ferry revellers to his pile at Woburn. Guests were picked up in town by a chauffeur, accompanied by footmen. Luggage went in another car, also escorted by footmen, as it was not done to travel with your suitcase.

It’s beyond Downton! I must remember to tell mine host how real toffs do it. He might send a plane just for the guns.

Rachel Johnson is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories