'Episodes' at the Gertrude Posel Gallery
by Sean O'Toole
Even if you have not seen any of William Kentridge's hugely engaging stage plays involving the Handspring Puppet Company, it is well worth visiting the Gertrude Posel Gallery to view its current exhibition of handcrafted puppets. Not only does the show offer a fascinating insight into an ostensibly arcane craft, but it also guides one through a significant piece of South African theatre history.
Be warned though: 'Episodes' is less a celebration of William Kentridge's masterly stage productions than it is a timely tip of the hat to the remarkable talents of Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler. The driving force behind the Handspring Puppet Company, Jones and Kohler first used puppets in a mid-1980s performance that poignantly confronted the contradictions of the period.
In both form and composition these early puppets are unmistakably classical, particularly with their painted faces and hand-manipulation from above. In a short question and answer session at the opening, Kohler spoke of how his association with Kentridge had required him to confront his classical leanings.
According to Kohler the deeply gouged, asymmetrical faces that resulted suggest a liberation of form, and a willingness of the puppet-maker to leave his mark on the wood. On a more practical level, the rough carving also ensured that the puppets' faces were well keyed for illumination. Kohler laughingly joked of how, following the early success of the play Woyzeck on the Highveld, Kentridge insisted that he use a chainsaw to construct his next batch of puppets.
Practice-based considerations aside, this show is absorbing for the way in which it charts a definite dissolution of form in the stage puppets. This is evident when comparing the early puppets with those that appeared in Ubu and the Truth Commission. It would seem to suggest that as Kentridge's plays confronted increasingly complex and horrific socio-political narratives, traditional form was incapable of communicating all the play's disparate trajectories.
In Ubu, for instance, the result is Brutus, a talking three-headed dog, as well as Niles, the crocodile puppet. The form of these puppets is however not without humour. The suitcases employed as torsos for these monstrosities once belonged to Kentridge's and Kohler's fathers, aptly suggesting how to recycle family baggage.
Scrutinising the puppets under the dispassionate gallery lights, it is intriguing to note the contradictory moods they evoke. Some are undeniably terrifying, others deeply emotive. This is particularly so with the ragtag band that appeared in Faustus in Africa. The deeply etched emotions on the band members' faces are all the more moving for the fact that their inspiration was derived from real-life bands that had welcomed Nelson Mandela into communities around the country following his prison release.
Much like the historical time period within which it is grounded, this show derives its power from its willingness to explore a diverse emotional and intellectual field. From practical stagecraft to mankind's curious, if not rather fetishistic engagement with automata, one cannot but be continually fascinated by these inert representations of life presented with such elegance and grace.
Gertrude Posel Gallery, University of the Witwatersrand, Braamfontein
Tel: 011 717 1363
Hours: Tues - Fri 10am - 4pm