German puppet company Figurentheater Tübingen present a smorgasbord of string puppets in Wunderkammer at this years London International Mime Festival. Three puppeteers, dressed like gothic versions of Pinoccio’s Geppetto, welcome you to a cabinet of curiosities where rare artefacts and familiar objects, the outlandish and the mundane, come together in a show of wonder, beauty and imagination.
The show was made up of a series of vignettes – each introducing is to a new collection of string puppets and the worlds they inhabit. Pots, pans and jelly moulds turned into belly dancer and band, odd sea creatures appearing out of tanks of water, gilt animal skulls nesting in piles of golden glitter – the whole world was a fabulous mixture of the delicate, the macabre and the beautiful – by turns both eery, frightening and funny.
While it can be hard to keep an audience’s attention though an episodic show with no real narrative through line – Wunderkammer – did it with ease. With each new puppet a brand new world unfolded, suitably different from the last, with it’s own rhythms, sounds, and colour pallet – that we were never given time to get bored. On the odd occasions that a moment did drag, or a particular puppet didn’t quite land, the rhythm of the show would change again and we would be back into the moment. It is an important lesson to learn that something as simple as a change of rhythm is sometimes all it takes to keep an audience engaged.
Figurentheater Tübingen founding member Frank Soehnle has said that he is “Addicted to the movement of string puppets. This light and lyrical pendulum movement, is like a visual poem. Watching string puppets is a meditation in wonderment, performing with them is like a dance with your own centre of gravity. There is no other puppet technique that that gives you the feeling to cause and to follow a movement at the same time.” Sadly it is a technique not often explored in the UK, and as a result I think attitudes towards marionettes here are mixed.
The great puppet revival that we’ve seen over the last 10 years in the UK has mainly focused on bunraku puppets, shadow puppetry and rod puppets. Marionettes – or string puppets as Soehnle describes them – have largely been forgotten. This potentially has two reasons. The first is historical – the ‘bad puppetry’ of our youths – dusty puppet theatres on fraught family holidays tended to include jerky and unimaginative marionettes bouncing at the end of their frayed strings. The second reason practical – marionettes are exceptionally difficult to puppeteer compared to other forms of puppetry. So the bar to using them in performance is set considerably higher than other puppet forms.
Having seen Wunderkammer I must now confess to being completely sold on string puppets. There was something hypnotic about the lightness of their movements, an etherial and at times other worldly quality that, in the hands of the puppet masters of Figurentheater Tübingen, was also totally believable and grounded in reality. Non of the jerky movements of the marionettes I remember from my childhood, instead a beautifully delicate, subtle and touching performance. If you’re even vaguely interested in puppetry and its different forms, or if indeed you just want to spend an hour and ten minutes of wonder, then I highly recommend you get down to see Wunderkammer while you can.
Puppetry by Alice Therese Gottschalk, Raphael Mürle and Frank Soehnle
‘Wunderkammer’ music by Tamar Halperin and Michael Wollny
Custom-written compositions by Bradley Kemp
Choreography by Lisa Thomas
Costumes by Evelyne Meersschaut
Lighting by Christian Glötzner
2 – 6 February 2016 / 19:45
The Pit, Barbican Theatre
£18 plus booking fee