An Interesting Case Study On The ‘Why’ Of Puppets in Production
Seven Siblings’ Titus Andronicus
Puppets? In a Shakespeare play? Madness.
Titus is actually the most requested Shakey-Shake play (usually by people at bars, but often by 30-somethings after seeing a show at Fringe), so naturally I was curious when Seven Siblings announced their Titus featuring puppets. My Entertainment World pretty accurately reflects my feelings about the show on the whole, but here I want to focus on the main reason to see this production, if you’re at all thinking about using puppets in a production: there is a lot at work with the application and execution (literal and figurative) and it makes an interesting case study for how puppets are applied in theatre.
So, why see this play? The individual elements can be quite good: the Saturninus puppet, in particular, is very engaging – three puppeteers operate it in a vaguely bunraku way, using their individual voices and speaking chorally to create a great, otherworldly effect. There are even some physical surprises built in that only come about in the final fight and shows that even on an indie budget incredible puppets are possible. All the puppets look fantastic and the puppeteers generally do very well with them (particularly the criminally underused Sarah Thorpe and Jeff Dingle). Puppets are capable of great and exciting things, particularly on this scale: it’s hard not to feel intimidated when you see a seven-foot-tall puppet backed by three puppeteers looming over an actor or fold out General Grievous-style with two swords to take up most of the stage. The epic scale, despite the depth of the stage at The Citadel – creates instant status and interest and on a scale I rarely see on indie stages. Definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for examples of new ways to integrate puppets on stage.
However, despite the engaging nature of the puppets, their application to this particular script and production doesn’t entirely work.
In this Titus, the puppets are gods that helped the Romans to conquer the Gauls and inhabit the bunker that the play is set in. The gods are sustained through blood-feeding tubes by corpses, creating an ‘in-continuity’ reason for puppeteers to be present on stage. This is a novel approach and solution to the problem of puppeteers that speaks to the cinematic qualities of the production; while we acknowledge that puppeteers must be present in a stage production, in film would seem out of place and thus every effort is taken to obscure them. It would seem to me that the choice to incorporate the puppeteers in this way speaks to a more of a film understanding and less of a stage understanding, but it’s interesting food for thought. However, it does raise more questions than it answers – if the gods require human host bodies, what did they do before the Romans moved in? How did they speak to the Romans and explain that they need blood feeding tubes? It’s a problem which cannot be answered or addressed without adding text. This, ultimately, is the largest problem with the amount of concept being layered onto the play: without adding any lines, the audience is left to infer on their own and go off of directors’ notes. While I fully believe audiences are generally a lot smarter than they’re given credit for and can be asked to fill in the blanks, this asks a lot of an audience already following an Elizabethan play. It also begs the question: what does it add to the story? Visually, it’s a treat and stylistically very interesting. Saturninus in particular is very engaging and enjoyable to watch, but the puppetness doesn’t increase my understanding of the character. This is particularly true when other puppets are introduced: I can understand the royalty being puppets, but why the nurse? Did someone really look at the bumbling messenger mole with his pigeons and say ‘Yes, hook a body up to that guy!’ Obviously I have no issue with puppets and Shakespeare, but the puppet logic here is muddy.
So, my recommendation is this: if you’re interested in puppet technique or application, pay attention to the technical work on display – how the puppets move, how they affect scenes, how they alter status through physicality. Observe how the blood tubes both add and detract from the piece (great for the death of the wolf/nurse puppet, awkward for the death of Saturninus). If you’re thinking of using puppets, consider very honestly the why: is it because they’re cool? Does the script suggest them? Do they help tell the story? In this productions’ case, they certainly add visual interest, but they also complicate the play world. While their method of speaking is engaging, the puppets themselves can’t emote the same way as humans; how does that affect your understanding of Shakespeare’s admittedly archaic text? Do they make it clearer through movement or harder to understand due to their inability to emote? Also, observe which characters are puppets and why – how does this choice affect how we view these characters and their place in the world? Because of the wide variety and application of puppets, Titus is a fascinating case study for how the integration of puppets works and for how it doesn’t. Definitely worth a view if these are questions you’re wrestling with in your own production.