Author Archives: Penny Francis

The Frog and the Bicycle

Penny Francis experiences a total theatre delight at Vélo Théatre’s Greli Grelo festival in France 

The decision to go surprised everyone, not least myself. The beginning of February had brought a small brochure of a small festival to be staged at the end of the month in a small French town I’d never heard of named Apt. The main attraction was that it was a festival run by two admired friends, Charlot Lemoine and Tania Castaing, whose company, Vélo Théatre, does uniquely brilliant work in the field of object theatre.

To travel alone for any distance is rather risky for me nowadays, but right on cue another friend, Sally, younger and stronger than me, came to stay and declared she would like to accompany me. Added to that, Eurostar had a special offer on the upgrade, the train would take us to Avignon (close to Pays d’Apt) which we both longed to explore, a warm welcome was promised by the Vélo people, a two-star hotel near the action had rooms free, so off we went. The adventure was clearly meant to be.



Velo Theatre: The frog…


Greli Grelo – the name of the festival – promised a feast of off-beat productions, some imported, some local, accenting visual riches and eccentricities, humour and tendresse in nine or ten productions.  For me the star offering was the Vélo show, which has actually been to Britain twice, (to Manipulate in Edinburgh, and to the Brighton Festival), but which I hadn’t seen. When I tell you that the show was called La grenouille au fond du puits croit que le ciel est rond (The frog at the bottom of the well believes the sky is round) and that there were neither frog, well nor sky in the performance, you will understand that a certain kind of humour pervaded not just that show but the whole festival.

The Vélo Théatre’s company home is in a vast factory which once produced crystallised (candied) fruits but is now all theirs and the main source of artistic life in the town. They have theatre and exhibition spaces, recreation spaces (one with a bar), a 40-foot long terrace, wide corridors adorned with bicycles (vélo means bicycle) and a dining area with a refectory table that seated at least 40 people, with an adjacent kitchen where a number of inspired cooks produced two hot and healthy meals a day for special participants of the festival, performers, organisers, volunteers – and a couple of foreign visitors. The whole place was a sea of colour, with hundreds of flags and posters and an accumulation of unlikely objects collected from the company’s travels.

The Frog show is one of Vélo’s best ever: it concerns an old collector of houses (300 of them) also beautiful delicate objects which in an installation are transformed by lighting and shadows into things magical. In the second half the spectators are invited to wander among the objects and wonder at their transformation. Charlot plays the collector and made me laugh a lot, and Flop – Philippe Lefebvre, a gifted fine-artist, (plasticien) – is responsible for the machines and shadows of the dreamlike installation. His conjuring with light and shadow also formed the exhibition, Va-et-Vient, in the Vélo factory.


TOF Dans L'Atelier

TOF: Dans L’Atelier


A bus ride took us to another town, Cavaillon, to La Garance Scene National, a fine big ‘national theatre’, one of 61 throughout France. Here we saw a more serious show, De Passage (On the Way), by Johanny Bert and Stéphane Joubertie, about a boy on the way to adulthood, confronted by lost love and death. All the spectators had to wear headphones, to feel immersed in the intimacy of the piece.

One of the shows, Dans l’Atelier (In the Workshop), was played by two young women of the TOF company from Belgium. The setting was a workbench with the torso of a large puppet whose head was being fashioned from a polystyrene block, which when placed on the body brought it to life rather violently. The two operators exacerbated the violence through their attempts to sculpt the head with a large saw and knives. The polystyrene flew everywhere and I worried that the puppeteers did not wear a mask. The audience found the whole affair hilarious. The show has toured extensively, in spite of its dangers!

There were two ‘nonsense’ shows, one played by another pair of women, members of a company from Normandy called Théatre du Champ Exquis (this defeats my limited colloquial French – surely not ‘delightful field?). The set was lovely – a huge white umbrella and objects moving in motion overhead on strings and many intriguing objects in the playing space below. One was a finely crafted paper castle that sprang as a pop-up from a huge book. Called Et Si! the action was quite inconsequential, rather as Alice in Wonderland is inconsequential, but for me it was validated by lighthearted humour, the scenography and an internal logic that I found enchanting.

Another company from Belgium, Gare Centrale (Central Station), is well-known on the festival circuit. Conversation Avec Un Jeune Homme featured Agnès Limbos, in crinoline and pompadour wig, growing old in a forest, in conversation with a thin young man who was a fabulous dancer – a faun of the forest, I think. It was an enjoyable affair, but I couldn’t grasp its – well – logic.


Gruppe 38: Hans Christian You MUst Be An Angel

Gruppe 38: Hans Christian, You Must Be An Angel


Denmark’s Gruppe 38 provided an original take on the Hans Andersen tales: it was called Hans Christian, You Must be an Angel. (This festival would win a prize for peculiar titles.) Difficult to do it justice in words – a sure sign of a good piece of visual theatre – the setting consisted of a huge dining table laid as a banquet for ten, the upright chairs being of metal with odd things attached to some of them such as a cluster of bells or rockers on the legs. The spectators were free to walk around the table (there were two voluble guides) where strange movements and effects took place at different points, all referring to the Andersen tales. If you were not familiar with these you might have been a bit foxed, but the apparently autonomous animation of the objects (however was it done?) was an entertainment in itself, and a kind of exercise for the imagination in the linking of the moving objects to the stories. The Ugly Duckling was a recurring theme, and the show culminated with the self-opening of a little suitcase where, in the lid, was the projection of a gliding swan. The show had the virtue of originality – I’ve never seen one like it.

Children of all ages from 18 months were catered for, there wasn’t a dud show and the houses were full. Greli Grelo is an annual event, and long may it and all the work of Vélo Théatre continue to light up a beautiful part of France, the Lubéron. I would love to go again – a total theatre delight.




 Greli Grelo 2016, an international festival for all the family, took place in Pays d’Apt, Luberon, 19–28 February 2016.

For more on Vélo Théatre see


A Chamber of Wonders: Figurentheater Tübingen

Penny Francis interviews master puppeteer, Frank Soehnle of Figurentheater Tübingen, whose show Wunderkammer comes to the London International Mime Festival 2016

One of the world’s most distinguished creators of puppet theatre, Frank Soehnle, and his productions have added to the lustre surrounding this branch of the performing arts in the twenty-first century. His aesthetic is unique, always the hallmark of a true artist; his techniques of craftsmanship and staging, his company’s performances in terms of their poetry and precision of movement and manipulation are superb; his choices of a dramaturgy which integrates sculpture with movement, music with drama, the creepy with the comic, the refined with the coarse, are all the product of an original vision.

The company’s base, Tübingen, is a town some 30 kilometres from Stuttgart, where he was born. Co-founder of Figuren Theater Tübingen, is Karin Ersching – performer, puppeteer, director, lighting designer and tour manager. She worked in special education from 1987-93, and has independently given guest performances and workshops in many different countries. She also makes puppets and teaches manipulation to students. Soehnle also gives workshops, as he is scheduled to do in London on Saturday 6 February 2016 (a ‘weekend lab’ called Things on Strings), and he teaches in several schools and festivals of puppetry.

This year the company is back in the London International Mime Festival, where it has been three times before, with Flamingo Bar, Nachgesichter or Night Visions, salto.lamento (one of my all-time favourite theatre productions) and now Wunderkammer, a chamber of wonders or, as the programme has it, a Cabinet of Curiosities.




The Wunderkammer itself is like a strange museum where a number of fantastic objects, artistic, scientific and natural, are operated by stringed controls and given life by three expert marionettists. These puppeteers have come together in a common desire to pay homage to the doyen of the European marionette, the late Albrecht Roser. Each of the three was a student and friend of Roser, each is director of her/his own company: Frank Soehnle himself, Alice Therese Gottschalk of FAB Theater, and Raphael Mürle of Figurentheater Pforzheim. Each studied and/or taught in the Hochschule für Musik und darstellende Kunst, the Higher School of Music and the Performing Arts in Stuttgart, in the puppetry department founded by Albrecht Roser in 1983. Roser was introduced to Soehnle when he was only 15, and acknowledges him as his inspiration and generous mentor until his death in 2011.

Another aim of the creative team was and is a determination not just to keep the employment of the stringed puppet alive but to demonstrate that it can be as contemporary and experimental as any other type. The Tübingen company has been successfully accomplishing that for some years.


Figurentheater Tübingen - Wunderkammer 14 © Winfried Reinhardt


Soehnle is fundamentally a modernist, an admirer of the Dadaists and the Surrealists. His figures, always made by him, are like no others. They are often insubstantial, ghostly, sometimes made of ephemeral materials.They are ‘genderless hybrids, embodying transience and death’, although the characters can be as comic as they are sinister – defined, Soehnle says, as much by their movements as by their role. With string puppets the movement is dictated by the size and structure of the marionette, which may be tiny or gigantic. At some stage of their animated life they are inclined to become independent of their maker, seeming to be manipulating the puppeteer, not the other way round. The performer needs to find the figure’s ‘centre’, on which he or she goes to work to achieve the professional precision so important to puppet performance, within the choreography of the whole.

The shows are nearer to dance than drama, although they may be based on a literary text – by Kafka, Chekhov or Čapek for example. The literary story serves as the structure of the show but Soehnle captures the language in atmospheric stage pictures rather than speech. There are exceptions, for instance in one production, Gabriel García Marquez’ story of The Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, presented by the Tübingen company as With Enormous Wings, a narrator was pivotal to the action. (For the international tour each actor chosen to play the part was a native speaker of the country where it was shown.) There is no permanent group of players: a special team is chosen for each show, sometimes four or five, sometimes only one. Soehnle calls himself the ‘soul’ of the work, where sculpture and music are essential elements, but his own fantastic imagination always at its core.


Wunderkammer yellow and blue


In the making of Wunderkammer the whole company played a part. The concept was inspired and framed by the music of Bradley Kemp, a jazz musician brought over from New York, who supplemented the compositions of Michael Wollny and Tamar Halperin. Within this framework the creation of the show was an open collaborative process, developed by a company of artists incomparably rich in talent and united in their creative aim. It has resulted in a beautiful and intriguing series of scenes in which stringed artefacts are animated in various modes and moods, both serious and comedic.

Soehnle seems to be at the height of his powers, and the company’s future is full of promise, with five or six projects ‘in the oven’ in various stages of realisation, students to be taught, tours to be undertaken. Their immediate activity concerns the revival of Nachtgesichter, already up and running in the prestigious Komische Oper, the Comic Opera House of Berlin, where the Intendant or Artistic Director is the Australian Barrie Kosky, a friend and admirer of the Tübingen company. Soehnle made the puppets for Kosky’s 2012 production of Orfeo. Kosky’s recent version of Mozart’s Magic Flute, created in collaboration with the 1927 theatre company, and presented across Europe, and to great acclaim at the Edinburgh International Festival 2015.

In 2009 a fine book was produced by Wilfried Nold, a specialist in puppet books based in Frankfurt, about the activities of the Tübingen company. Beautifully produced and with illustrations on every page, it is simply called Figuren Theater Tübingen, Creationen 1991-2009 and would be a fine addition to the library of every enthusiast of visual theatre.

Few companies have been chosen for the London International Mime Festival four times: it is proof of the high regard for Frank Soehnle’s productions held by the co-directors of the festival Joseph Seelig and Helen Lannaghan, who are as excited to present Wunderkammer as we are to see it.

Figurentheater Tübingen’s Wunderkammer plays at the Barbican, 2–6 February 2016, 7.45pm. Book here:

Frank Soehnle and Alice Therese Gottschalk teach a one-day workshop at the Barbican on Saturday 6 February entitled Things on Strings, also part of the London International Mime Festival.

Yeung Fai: Hand Stories ¦ Photo: Mario del Curto

Yeung Fai: Hand Stories

Yeung Fai: Hand Stories ¦ Photo: Mario del Curto

Asian countries with a strong puppet tradition, such as Indonesia, Japan and China, have for some years worked on a modern approach to their theatre, but have found the international demand for their traditional shows a heavy drag on new creations.

Yeung Fai has found a highly intelligent way to shake off the cobwebby aspects of the Chinese glove puppet tradition while retaining some of its magic. He has invented a show full of humour and self-parody that mixes media in a context of ‘stories’, semi-autobiographical episodes which yet allow him to amaze us with reminders of traditional shows by displaying his fabulous dexterity. The Chinese brilliance of manipulation, especially of glove puppets, is virtually unknown among Western puppeteers, and is the result of a mental and physical training that began when Yeung Fai was six years old. He is a fifth-generation puppeteer, and has broken the mould. I imagine some of his ancestors are revolving indignantly in their grave.

The transgression starts with the visibility of the two excellent performers (the second is French, I believe, and his name is Yoann Pencolé), who are as much actors as puppet players. Then there is projection and film: a rupture with tradition, obviously. Several changes of scene and good lighting effects shift the action all over the stage, with a long strip of cloth hung at the back for the projections. The most striking innovation is in the dramaturgy which refers to a 20th Century world: episodes in the life of the puppeteer and his family. Then there are the puppets: three of them larger than the usual tiny figures (also present from time to time), with realistically sculpted features; another a cute angel with pop-up wings; another a big shiny dragon, about two metres long, writhing menacingly above the tabletop staging.

The dragon represents a malevolent power, dominating grim episodes about an imprisoned man hit on the head by a Little Red Book (the Cultural Revolution had a dreadful effect on Yeung Fai’s family). Another episode shows an impoverished street puppeteer, Yeung Fai himself, performing what he has salvaged of his traditional show to the unheeding passers-by.

Otherwise the sketches are lighthearted, witty, varied, with some spoken banter in Chinese and French between the two players. The playing area for the puppets consisted of one, sometimes two, plain, heart-high wheeled counters; turned around, one of the counters revealed a cramped hut built into the back, where the puppeteer was visited by the cute angel, apparently symbolising Hope.

I was well entertained, and would gladly see it again, to revisit the rich pleasures of the visuals and the funny, touching storytelling.