'Episodes' - Handspring Puppet Company at the Tatham
by Virginia MacKenny
To enter 'Episodes', currently on exhibition at the Tatham Art Gallery, is to enter a playground of the imagination. Surrounded by 16 years of puppetry productions - tableaux of life-size figures, strange beasts and a whirligig of chimps flying overhead - one is transported into a realm where disbelief is suspended.
This is the magic of puppets. Nothing but inanimate objects manipulated by human beings, they nonetheless make us credulous. The Handspring Puppet Company pushes the viewer's capacity for imaginative engagement by revealing the nuts and bolts of the mechanisms and methods of manipulation. Every knob and rod, bolt and spring is fully evident to the eye. Open-work puppets, skeletal in form to lighten their weight, reveal their very bones through stretched skins of gauze. In production not even the manipulators are hidden, and yet we believe.
Drawing from a wide range of puppet traditions such as Japanese Bunraku puppetry, where the principle manipulators are visible, Indonesian shadow puppetry, German rod-manipulated puppets and Malian wooden puppets, eclecticism here spawns unique solutions. Everything is in service to the production, and if evidence is needed that necessity is the mother of invention, it can be found here. If the piece calls for three dogs to appear on stage but there aren't enough human manipulators, a singular structure with three heads is born. When the despot Ubu, from Ubu and the Truth Commission (based on Alfred Jarry's famous piece of absurdist theatre, Ubu, of 1898), needs to hide incriminating evidence he stuffs it into Ma Ubu's capacious crocodile handbag; "Niles" comes complete with gaping maw and swinging tail. A lingerie salesman's dream in Starbrites (1990) calls for three dancing ghost petticoats - they are leanly presented as wire armatures on a rotating rod, their generous "hips" gyrating evocatively.
Even in exhibition, the majority of the puppets inanimate, the masterful characterisation obtained by carver and designer Adrian Kohler promotes instant empathy. Often based on real people, the puppets convince whether serious or satirical. Four witnesses from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are telling in their attitudes of longstanding patience and suffering. Helen of Troy from Faustus in Africa (1994), based on a 1940s cigarette advertisement, evokes the nostalgia of the period through her classic beauty. A group of buxom African "mamas" in bright cloth bring to mind the inhabitants of an entire village.
The heads of these figures are carved from woods such as obechi and jelutong, allowing for the speedy execution necessitated by the constraints of production time. Once again Kohler turns a necessity into a virtue - many of the pieces are completed incredibly quickly (hands take a morning, a head two days). Deft of stroke, the chisel marks animate the surface of the wood in a direct, unadulterated manner showing a fluent sculptural understanding. Overtly crude, with clearly defined forms for easy reading from a distance, they survive close scrutiny, conveying an astonishing intimacy of detail and expression.
The sculptural abilities of Adrian Kohler and the longstanding collaborative relationship that the company has with one of this country's most celebrated artists, William Kentridge, make this a unique crossover of disciplines. Intelligently presented with supporting videos of the multimedia productions, this is a show that will be appreciated by a wide audience. Brilliantly inventive, the work shows a truly creative response to demands of production as well as concept. It's well worth the visit.
Until February 3
Tatham Art Gallery, corner Longmarket Street and Commercial Road
Tel: (033) 342 1804/01
Hours: Tues - Sun 10am - 6pm