Author Archives: Darren East


About Darren East

Darren East is a theatre maker and puppeteer, co-founder of Unpacked Theatre Company, co-director of TouchedTheatre and recently co-founder of Third Hand, the UK's only dedicated puppetry and opera company, with whom he won the Off West End Award for Best Opera Production. He teaches regularly, including with the Brighton Puppetry School.

Vamos Theatre: A Brave Face

In the distinctive Vamos style (full-masked, characterful, human stories, told with pathos and humour) we are pitched straight into an absolutely recognisable situation: a girl and her older brother, a playful and familiar quarrel, a time in the recent past (but definitely past), and a hint of something more urgent, darker, on the horizon – all told absolutely wordlessly, conveyed by music and costume and staging and Russel Dean’s exactly-expressive-enough masks yes, but mostly conveyed by the detail in the physical performances, each beat clear and precise, each little action and reaction telling us something compelling about the characters, their feelings, their stories.

A Brave Face is the story of a young man who joins the British Army, alongside his best friend, in 2009; they are posted to Afghanistan. All of this is told, but the meat of the piece is on the protagonist’s return home, his Post Traumatic Stress told vividly through his irrationality, relationship-threatening moods, and fears. Vamos spent two years researching A Brave Face and it is built on the stories and experiences shared with them by ex-combat soldiers and their families.

Even on its very first night the show is near-flawlessly performed, and it is beautifully constructed, with never a missed beat or dull moment. Janie Armour’s music also works particularly well in keeping the momentum of the wordless performance moving without ever over-selling its emotions. This is radically unpretentious, truthful, accessible theatre, and Vamos (newly an Arts Council of England National Portfolio Organisation from 2018) are keepers of the flame for full mask performance in the UK.

However, a friend in the audience said afterwards that he felt the artistry was great but the story really lacking – if a text-driven play had presented this narrative it would be laughed out of town, he suggested. It’s true that events are straightforward, linear and on the whole very predictable here: the upbeat innocents off to war; the meeting with a different reality; the painful tragedy and aftermath; the sweet beginnings of healing through human contact. The answer to the complaint is that complex narrative is arguably not what this form is for: its primary method is empathy – every moment relying on audience contact and recognition – and so drawing us deep into the material is prized over laying out a complex surface.

There is a quibble that sticks for me, though. I remain troubled by how resolutely apolitical the show is. There is nothing overt about the bigger story of what led the British young men to this tragedy – either in broader terms or in their own situations. And the only Afghan we see is Khatera, a young girl with a doll who playfully befriends the soldiers, and suffers for it, in a rare moment that feels like heavy-handed storytelling, and an overly-symbolic character in a piece necessarily staffed with archetypes. But she would have to work impossibly hard to represent all of the experiences of the other people who suffered terribly in this conflict (and continue to do so). Now, I understand that the show isn’t attempting to do this: it’s a piece about the experiences of British veterans. But nevertheless I am left wondering if this history might be too close, still, for a British artist to so completely focus on this experience.



Plexus Polaire: Ashes

Previous work by Yngvild Aspeli, director of Ashes, includes a series of shows by UK-based company Jammy Voo, in most of which (among other things) she performed a different scene where she got into a generally-fatal battle with her own puppet.

In a sense, Ashes is these theatrical moments of struggle writ large. The protagonist is a writer failing to make sense of his obsession with a long-ago series of arson attacks on the town where he lived. Making sense of it by writing about it. And he is fighting pretty much everything and everyone else in his world: his computer, his drink, his research, his memories, his father, himself, his story, and the characters in it.

Formally, the writer is the only character here played by an actor; the rest of the cast (from 1978, the arsonist, his parents, and their small-town community; plus the writer’s recently-deceased father) are played by puppets, in both table-top and near-life-size scale. There is a black scrim that crosses the entire space downstage, and only the writer appears downstage of it, until he can finally tear his obsessions across the divide to join him. The finely-lit puppetry and other action behind the scrim is thus distanced, and able to vanish, fade, and reappear at will; the screen also serves as a place for video to appear (including the only words in the piece). There is also a little huddle of simple tiny model houses, floating upstage in the air, which can be transformed, lit, and set ablaze by the video projection.

The narrative is ostensibly straightforward: in order to write his piece about the arson, and thus gain a firmer grasp of his own identity and purpose, the writer must begin to come to terms in some way with his own relationship to these past events. But we must go down some dark alleyways with him to get there. The puppet dramaturgy is sophisticated and highly wrought, developing from hyperreal domestic tabletop scenes that open the show to incidents of interaction between puppets and puppeteers, the puppeteering of the actor, surreal giant figures (the writer’s dying father emerges, smoking furiously, from near-life-size dead elk), shocking total puppet stillness, and finally (it had to be in there) a full-on fight between the writer and the puppet arsonist that he is animating himself. The dreamlike, hallucinatory sequences are supported by the distancing of the scrim, and the floating video projection, but they fundamentally work because the puppetry is so technically good – crisp, strong, never woolly or meandering: as with dreams, everything is totally real, fully weighted with presence and meaning in the moment, even if in the next moment it is vanished, fragmented, or contradicted. This only falters slightly in the scenes where all the large-scale inhabitants of the burning town turn out, and it’s not clear if their slightly shuddering, Stepford-robotic mannerisms are intentional storytelling or a limitation of their animation by an extremely hard-working cast of three.

Ashes is based on Gaute Heivoll’s book Before I Burn, which is a novelised telling of the true incidents of those 1978 arsons. The writer in the show, we discover, was only months old when the events took place. So although they consume him, like fire, he cannot be expected to properly remember them, or to be in any true sense responsible. All of this slippery, troubling and complex relationship with truth (the piece finally arguing that in a case like this, fiction becomes the most effective way to get to the truth of events and their consequences) is deeply infused in the show, and hauntingly, slightly frustratingly, but no doubt entirely properly, the piece gives plenty of hints but refuses to completely clarify most of its other narrative threads. But Aspeli has found the perfect form to take us through this struggle.

Featured image (top): Plexus Polaire: Ashes. Photo Claire Leroux



Stephen Mottram: The Parachute / Watch The Ball

Stephen Mottram is known for his sophisticated marionette shows for adult audiences, and also for his highly skilled analysis and performance of puppet movement and expression.

The Parachute appears to have begun life as an experiment in how minimally humans can be represented, as animated figures, and still have their actions and their inner lives read clearly by an audience. Working in a fully-black booth, everything in the show is very narrowly lit so it floats in space, meaning that where Mottram conjures up a figure simply from five glowing balls, that is absolutely all we see. And it works: unquestionably, we read these five balls in their various configurations as a figure, one that runs, jumps, slides, pushes and pulls, and runs through a scale of emotions.

This is clearly a huge technical achievement, most especially when the (masculine) ball-figure is joined by his stick-figure partner, and both are animated together: although not visible, one assumes there are a number of different structural versions of each that can be made to perform specific actions and rhythms (I can confirm that Stephen Mottram genuinely does only have two hands). Sebastian Castagna’s soundtrack works beautifully – unobtrusively filling space and supporting action without ever feeling like it’s trying too hard.

Beyond this technique though, the narrative content of The Parachute does feel slighter than previous Mottram shows. According to the programme, its focus is on the later-life moment when ‘the children have left and home feels like a waiting room’. But although this moment is there (and is very pleasing), for the male protagonist at least, what we mainly see over the show’s forty minutes is a fairly generic life-story, with some slightly niggling gender politics – perhaps seeing the show days after the mass women’s marches made this feel more acute, but the female in this relationship did seem to be conjured up from a bundle of sticks only for the purposes of romance and reproduction. So it does finally feel as though The Parachute doesn’t entirely take flight beyond its admittedly highly impressive exploration of puppetry technique.

Watch the Ball, the very short piece that follows, is a joy however. Hard to describe without giving too much away, it’s a delightful and very slick power game, where puppets can change faces – faces that are beautifully crafted miniature wooden masks – to change moods, but then more profound things change while you’re (and they’re) not quite looking. It’s also an intriguing statement on puppetry, possibly quite a traditional one, where the puppeteer, while effacing himself (here, by donning a pair of sinister dark glasses and keeping his head relatively still, so that we can never follow his gaze and are pushed therefore to follow the puppet-face), also takes charge and – playfully, pleasurably – manipulates not only the puppets but also the audience. There is quite a difference between this form (the puppeteer as magician, essentially) and the more commonly-seen one these days where the puppetry is more open-handed, and the audience’s role is more to share in the creation of life in the figures.

Featured image (top): Stephen Mottram: Watch the Ball. Photo David Fisher 



Silencio Blanco - Chiflon The Silence of the Coal - Photo by Lorenzo Mella

Silencio Blanco: Chiflón: The Silence of the Coal

Silencio Blanco - Chiflon The Silence of the Coal - Photo by Lorenzo MellaIt begins with a death. The small, fragile-looking, pale figure is working underground, in a tunnel supported by wonky struts and lit by tiny lamps. He hammers, he shovels. There are drips and echoes, sounds of other work going on unseen around him, and then there is a louder sound. He is alarmed. One of his puppeteers stands, and pours a basketful of debris from above. He tries to run, but there is no escape. He falls, and is crushed. He struggles and then he is still. Silently, gently, his puppeteers withdraw their control rods from his white-paper body.

Puppets do death very well.

Chiflón: The Silence of the Coal is framed by underground deaths, between which we also see into the above-ground lives of the miners and their families. The show, brought to the Brighton Festival by Chilean puppetry company Silencio Blanco, is based on the story of a 19th-century miner, but intentionally pulls on memories of more recent disasters.

It is entirely performed by small paper-based white figurative rod puppets, operated tabletop/bunraku style by a team of black-clad hooded puppeteers. There is no text, indeed in the publicity the show is repeatedly described as ‘silent’ – but (leaving for the moment the constant soundtrack) the puppets do, in fact, speak: we see their conversations, their attitudes and gestures of speech, both delivered and heard. This is no less real speech than their actions are real actions. The main mode of performance, in fact, is a kind of puppet naturalism: all movement is very human-like – nothing here of the wild or transformative or scale-changing possibilities of the form. When it works, this method is effective – it’s like magical translation, and we understand their conversations. If ever you lose the thread, though (as I did in one section with the miner’s wife and – I’m guessing – their daughter) you are properly lost, and easily disengaged: there isn’t a strong metaphorical or visual language to read; you’re just watching a conversation, an interaction, that you don’t understand.

The puppeteers, although dressed in blacks and hoods, are not ‘invisible’ entirely: they interact functionally with the puppets, fetching objects, turning lights on and off in their world, and, touchingly, withdraw their operating rods at the points of death; there’s a hint of their presence as fates, as anima, but this is never explicit or overplayed.

The soundtrack is mostly built of simple sounds (birds, water, footsteps) and functions to situate us – it shifts between interior, exterior, and underground, and between night and day. There are just a couple of moments where extradiegetic melodic sound intrudes – at the ending, and the other is the piece’s singular moment of fantastical imagery, when the women’s laundry expands to fill the stage. It’s a relief, this scene, although only a small stretch from the other stage-pictures and languages: it is a breath of something bigger than the very constricted world of the miners.

And this constriction and limitation feels honest but is dramatically a bit suffocating. The puppeteers are exceptionally skilled and work seamlessly together to keep the figures alive, to give every flicker and gesture accurately, but it feels as though they’re working from an overly-restricted palette, and sometimes at great length. Through a commitment to truthfulness the show becomes too austere to connect fully with the audience. It also struggles to reach across the relatively large and wide space of the Dome Studio – I was about halfway back, but at the end of a row; I struggled to keep focus and follow the detail of the puppets – I felt I was about as far away from them as I could have managed. Being at the side meant I missed several moments, and the downstage-centre finale was obscured almost entirely by set, puppeteers and audience.

Although it is great to see an international puppetry company featured in the Brighton Festival, and always intriguing for puppet fans to see work of this level, this was possibly not the best introduction to theatrical puppetry for a general audience.

The Wrong Crowd - Kite

The Wrong Crowd: Kite

The Wrong Crowd - KiteAfter a number of successful touring shows, including a contemporary opera for young people (last year’s Swanhunter), the Wrong Crowd have made a new piece, again for young people, which has no words at all. They say in the programme notes that ‘this suits us well as visual theatre makers,’ and you can feel the freedom in the making of the show: everything is malleable, everything here is at the service of the storytelling, a sweet and simple tale of accepting life’s changes, of how conflicting approaches to grief can be reconciled.

We begin with the Girl (played by Charlotte Croft), after the death of her mother, leaving her home by the sea and moving to London to live with her Grandmother (Liz Crowther), packing only a few mementos of her mother and an old paper kite. This chunk of exposition and story is told with wonderful swiftness and spareness. All the elements available are utilised: scenography, sound, object work, physicality and looks between the characters. This includes, right from the start, the work of the other two performers, Linden Walcott-Burton and Nicola Blackwell, who are credited as ‘The Wind’, and are, beyond that (and a certain amount of nimble scene-changing) the anima, the breath of the piece, fluttering clothing, setting things moving. They whisk away things that need to be lost and deliver them precisely when and where they need to be found. It’s a delicious conceit that is very puppetry-centred but also sits perfectly at the heart of the more movement-based languages of the show.

Sometimes the movement/visual sequences are right on point: as the two arrive at their now shared home, there’s a moment where Grandmother acknowledges adjusting the table in her kitchen to seat two – an instant that somehow says everything about the changes in her space, her life. At other times they’re a little overworked, and heavy-handed: there’s a conflict over sitting down to dinner that had me wondering if the Girl was meant to be fifteen or five, and in either case didn’t really ring true – it felt more like an elegant exercise than essential storytelling.

Design (by Rachael Canning, who also directs) is a brilliantly effective mix of real-world objects (a fridge, a wheelie bin, a bed, a window frame) backed by colour-changing neon strips that allow it all to be more abstract in an instant, becoming trains and rooftops and city exteriors. Similarly, ornaments and books can become landscapes and scenery. Sound and music by Isobel Waller-Bridge is at its best when neatly accentuating action, supporting storytelling, and rather less so when slightly-too-frequently seeming to insistently tell us what to feel in scenes (mostly a rather non-specific maudlin bittersweetness).

The show culminates in a climactic magic-realist sequence as the girl is whisked across night-time London by her kite, with Grandmother soon in hot pursuit. The Wind, and the kite, help the Girl soar through her new environment, shedding the relics of her mother as she goes. These all fall neatly into the path of Grandmother who finally lets them in, admitting her own memories. It’s possibly over-tidy as a narrative device but it’s undeniably touching in performance.

And here too, the show is best when the urgent necessities of narrative propulsion lead the visual work, and less so when the other way around: the figurative puppetry (as so often when it appears in theatre) is absolutely paradigmatic of this. So, we have miniature tabletop figures of Girl and Grandmother, soaring and shivering amongst and above pop-up-book London. It’s a great vision, and it’s all elegantly done. But the flying Girl puppet has no weight, and so no struggle, none of the conflicting emotions that her human counterpart displays, and is not properly at the mercy of her kite. The Grandmother puppet is shaken (a right puppet no-no) rather than trembling, when cold. It means they don’t have full puppet agency: they become illustrative, like the picture-book itself, moments of visual pleasure rather than emotional heft. And this is how I feel, in the end, about the show itself: it is well-made, well-structured, well-intentioned; subtle and slick, beautifully performed; but crucially lacking some of that final connection to truthful human depth that would make it genuinely moving.