SOME CALL it “post-human” theatre, the shift towards making objects and images stand where human beings once did.
Mise – Story Of A Girl
Churchill theatre, Edinburgh
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The Intergalactic Nemesis
Churchill theatre, Edinburgh
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We’re certainly a species out of love with ourselves, in the 21st century, often far more able to extend basic empathy to a puppet or a little sketched image than to a human figure onstage; and it’s a trend that has brought puppetry and “object theatre” increasingly into the world of adult drama, as theatremakers search for new ways to attract and move a live audience.
Yet when it comes to Imaginate – Scotland’s annual international festival of performing arts for children and young people, – there’s still no doubt of the key role puppets play in children’s theatre. Two of this year’s opening shows – Unicorn Theatre’s lovely Something Very Far Away (reviewed on Tuesday) and Branar of Ireland’s tiny but exquisite Mise - Story Of A Girl, at Churchhill Theatre – depend to a huge extent, for their impact, on the instant appeal of the tiny puppets who represent the main characters; and in the case of Mise, a small and glowing 40-minute tale about a little girl who can’t sleep, the gorgeous little puppet figure created by Suse Reibeich for Marc MacLochlainn’s production essentially carries the whole show single-handed, with the help of her two infinitely subtle puppeteer-handlers.
The story is a simple one, backed by lovely live music from composer and harpist Morgan Cooke, and charcoal-washed graphics of interiors and night-time rooftops; little Mise goes upstairs to bed, finds a beautiful new dress waiting for her there as a gift, manages to tear it, and finds herself too upset and excited to sleep, so she has to play lots of dream-like games instead. The show is sometimes a little short of narrative weight and clarity, a little long on imaginative whimsy. Yet its colours are rich and beautiful, its music and atmosphere perfect; and Mise herself is completely irresistible.
There are no puppets in The Intergalactic Nemesis, brought to Imaginate by Robot Planet of Austin, Texas; but it’s one of those shows that seems to contain everything else but the kitchen sink, so eager is it to grab the attention of its chosen eight-plus audience. Based on a radio play that pays tribute to the great science fiction pulp adventures of the 1930s, Intergalactic Nemesis Book One: Target Earth describes itself as a live action graphic novel; but in fact it’s a graphic novel in slide-show form, with live sound delivered by a radio cast in evening dress, an onstage pianist-composer, and a sound-effects artist presiding over what looks like a table full of domestic junk.
And it’s perhaps in the effort to inject more live action than this already busy concept can take that Jason Neulander’s ambitious production comes slightly unstuck, like a home-made spaceship hitting some interstellar turbulence. The 1930s-style graphics are superb, the sound is excellent, Graham Reynolds’s improvised score is eloquent if sometimes deafening; but the physical presence of the three live actors is often as distracting as it is entertaining, and seems to cause some real problems of pace.
It’s also slightly disturbing, at Imaginate, to see two shows out of three, in the first 24 hours, trying to inject some excitement into theatre by offering live action insights into the creation of other more popular art-forms – animated film in the case of Something Very Far Away, graphic novels and radio in Intergalactic Nemesis.
For all its noisy imperfection, though, Neulander’s show is a bold effort to capture the thrill of the graphic novel in theatrical form; and now, the company travels on to Intergalactic Nemesis Book 2: Robot Planet Rising.
If you want to glimpse the complete subjection of theatre to other media, though, you can do no better, this week, than travel to Dundee Rep, where the lovely Glynis Barber and her husband Michael Brandon – once undercover cops Dempsey And Makepeace, on 1980s television – are demonstrating the sheer power of TV celebrity to fill theatres, almost regardless of the show on offer. AR Gurney’s Love Letters is a simple and much-performed two-hander for a pair of actors, male and female, who sit at writing-desks throughout the 90-minute performance. They play two wealthy and privileged Americans, Andrew and Melissa, who fall in love at primary school in the 1930s, and keep in touch by letter throughout their lives; the show consists of extracts from their letters read out to the audience, and is evidently far more like a radio play than any kind of live drama.
Some of Gurney’s writing is genuinely witty and poignant; the play follows the very different paths of the two characters’ lives, as he becomes a successful Senator with a wife and three sons, and she becomes a part-time artist and lonely, full-time lush. Elsewhere, though, the tone seems crude and even shocking; if Gurney is trying to satirise the attitudes of rich white Protestant Americans to various other social groups, his satire is not sharp enough, and his wit sometimes misplaced.
Barber and Brandon give the text an elegant and touching performance; Barber in particular looks and sounds almost exactly as she did 30 years ago, and her many fans in the audience cheer the show to the echo. As theatre though, this show is dead, from the eyebrows up and from the waist down; it’s an audience with Miss Barber and Mr Brandon, but hardly a play at all.
Performance of the week
The little puppet that plays Mise in this week’s Imaginate show about a little girl who can’t sleep is only about one foot tall, made from paint, wool and resin. Yet like all the best puppet theatre, this miniature show from Branar theatre of Galway somehow makes us see, in Mise’s little, sculpted face, a whole arc of shifting emotional experience, from fear, irritation and puzzlement to laughter, joy, and deep peace. Made by Suse Reibeich for this show, Mise is just one of the many magnificent puppet characters in Edinburgh this week; but for sheer beauty and eloquence, she is the queen of them all – or the little princess, anyway.
• The Story Of A Girl runs until today; The Intergalactic Nemesis and Love Letters both run until Saturday.