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.