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