Miriam King reports on Grist to the Mill’s appearances at the Suspense Festival of Adult Puppetry
Puppetry, object theatre, animation… Suspense is a biennial festival that takes place in London in October and November. It aims to ‘explode the myth that surrounds puppetry in this country, proving that puppets aren’t just for kids.’ It showcases a diverse range of contemporary work from UK and international practitioners, bringing puppetry to new adult audiences. It is produced by Little Angel Theatre, set up by that enterprising venue’s outgoing artistic director, Peter Glanville. Since its inception in 2009, the festival has expanded and in this its third incarnation embraces 12 venues, with over 25 companies participating. International companies (from the Netherlands, France and Spain) included the legendary Compagnie Philippe Genty, and the greatly admired DuduPaiva Company, alongside the most innovative of UK companies – Horse & Bamboo, Invisible Thread, Pickled Image, Blind Summit are all here, alongside Little Angel Theatre themselves, presenting their take on Macbeth (the last show directed by Glanville before he moves on the take up the helm of the Polka Theatre).
The wider programme includes symposia, workshops and talks, including some held in collaboration with the Puppet Centre and Unima, and film screenings at the V&A museum. There is also, in this full-to-the-brim programme, a showcase of new work held at the Pleasance Islington. This ‘new from the UK’ selection included Touched Theatre’s delightful and thought-provoking promenade work Blue, which skilfully brings together new writing, puppetry and film to tell the poignant story of a missing person; and not one but two shows from Grist to the Mill.
Looking at these two shows by the same company gives an interesting insight into the many and various possibilities for contemporary puppetry. Although by the same company, they work in very different ways.
The first of these two is Thinking It and Fainting, which was developed with support from Nuffield Theatre and the Puppet Centre Trust. It’s a show that has been a long time in the making, and which has undergone very many different incarnations. The version presented at Suspense moves the piece away from installation-performance art and into more conventional puppet theatre territory.
On stage, a kitchen, half-light – perhaps its 4am. The previous day’s pots and dishes are piled up in the sink. A tiny white-haired figure clambers down from a kitchen cabinet to rest a moment on the kettle before landing onto a pile of draining dishes. Thinking it and Fainting is eerie and atmospheric, accompanied throughout by a fantastical live soundscape (by James Foz Foster). Spectres of dishcloths and apparitions levitate out from the kitchen sink. Our delicate heroine bashes them and bats them away with a frying pan. A raggle-taggle skeleton relic erupts from the laundry basket, is sprayed with Vanish and dissolves away like a wispy Wicked Witch of the West, (or should we say ‘vest’!) Our warrior waif rides a rapacious night ‘mare’ into the pedal-bin. A taut forest of 100- dernier American Tan tights is stretched across the space. Looming shadows from the fridge wrap the space. ‘The End’, presented on toast, concludes this nocturnal adventure.
When a show works well, you’re left with the memory of the puppet characters, and not of the puppeteers, which is the case with the skilful puppeteers here, company director Isobel Smith and guest puppeteers Teele Uustani and Faith Brandon. It’s been a delight of scullery skulduggery, yet the pitch of this piece remained on the one spooky level all the way throughout. I’d liked to have seen a change of dynamic at the crack of dawn or something else to surprise or challenge.
Grist to the Mill also bring us, a few days later, Cristina the Astonishing – which certainly manages to do both. From a demon infested dreamland domesticity we move to the troubled psyche of an artist – live action, one solo performer (with the occasional appearance of two puppeteers dressed as nurses), plus a magnificent, strident and enchanting soundtrack (also by Foz Foster, pre-recorded this time), and beautiful animations video-mapped onto the white set.
The show is a surreal autobiography, created by painter and performance artist The Baron Gilvan, who stars as the troubled Artist. With a howling red trombone, and plenty of jingling and tingling, our troubled hero (wearing a funnel on his head) conjures up a battleground of toilet roll tubes, a ludicrously funny war scene accompanied by extraordinary black-and-white animations of an Armageddon which bludgeon our retinas. All the animation in the piece is created from the Baron’s own painting work, with the help of Foz Foster.
This is a poetic and crazy show, the extraordinary doom-laden animations of skulls and crows tumbling into red flames, the burning flames then morphing into a kaleidoscope of colour. The tortured artist, locked in an asylum, is brought back to sanity through the sacrifices of Saint Christina the Astonishing, represented by one of Isobel Smith’s beautiful puppets – a spectral presence who floats eerily around the stage. Finally the moon rises, and the artist is ready to face the world again.
This fantastically beautiful show about personal battles of the soul fought and won has a highly original aesthetic and skilfully brings together its component parts of animated painting, melodramatic performance, puppetry, and music. A truly unique piece of work.
Miriam King saw Grist to the Mill’s Thinking it and Fainting and Christina the Astonishing at Pleasance Islington, October 2013, as part of the Suspense Festival of Adult Puppetry. http://suspensefestival.com/
Additional reporting on Suspense by Dorothy Max Prior.