Woyzeck on the Highveld: They’ve still got their noses in front
The creators of War Horse are back – and they remain the best puppet company in the business, says Michael Coveney
Tuesday 06 September 2011
There is a performing horse in Georg Büchner's Expressionist tragic masterpiece Woyzeck, but he'll be played this week at the Barbican – and then on a big national tour through November – by a puppet rhino.
Or so I'm told by Adrian Kohler, the creative genius behind War Horse, still running in the West End, whose Cape Town-based Handspring Puppet Company continues to spark collaborative creativity between all manner of artists.
These are heady days for the maligned art of puppetry: Sooty and Sweep, the ascetic Japanese Bunraku and the hedonistic Bread and Puppet Theatre of New York – they've all been eclipsed by War Horse in London and New York.
Kohler, who made the skeletal equine corsetry for War Horse, and who has nothing to do with the upcoming Spielberg movie ("they bought up all the rights") explains how that multi-award-winning phenomenon "gobbled the company up in a big way" following its triumphant opening at the National Theatre in 2007; and also how that visionary production, still running in the West End, marks a cultural sea change.
"In an age of digital and computer innovation, I guess that hand-made objects like puppets, or nice furniture, or good organic food, are making a comeback. We are always fighting for good new work at Handspring, but we are also making an aesthetic statement."
After War Horse, Handspring, co-founded by Kohler's partner, Basil Jones, needed to do something different and intimate. First came Or You Could Kiss Me at the National Theatre last year, an autobiographical show in which Adrian and Basil were seen – as life-size puppets – as their younger selves and their older ones, too, in 2036.
This week, it's a return to their creative roots in a 90-minute production from 1992, Woyzeck on the Highveld, which recasts Büchner's anti-hero as a migrant worker in 1950s South Africa. The show had been consigned to museum mothballs in Munich, but a festival invitation from Perth has triggered this itinerant revival.
In Woyzeck Kohler and Jones create an amalgam of five puppeteers and five puppets, designed in consort with William Kentridge's charcoal drawings. The puppets in Woyzeck are two-thirds life size, structured on plywood with hollowed-out wooden heads. In its period setting, the play is now much closer to what Büchner intended, says Kohler, almost by-passing the previously emphasised racial stratification to concentrate on the "haves and have-nots" into which contemporary South Africa so spectacularly divides.
The war horses, animated by actors, were made of cane and stretched georgette and lived way beyond their material composition because of their loving manipulation. At their new factory in Cape Town, where they now employ a staff of 20, Handspring have made a total of 27 horses, plus affiliated puppets. They will double that output in the next year as the North American tour kicks in.
It's an amazing story: Kohler and Jones started in children's theatre in the 1980s, went "adult" in the 1990s and, in the same decade, began working with Kentridge; with him, and other collaborators, they have pushed puppetry into a new dimension of expressive theatricality, using video, lights and projections. Handspring are at the epicentre of new work across several continents now, and the key word remains "collaboration" – with writers, designers, directors and conceptual artists. War Horse brought this energy into sudden focus, while Woyzeck may remind us that there is a precedent for this sort of artistic fusion. The Greeks used masks to express the unsayable; Handspring puppets reach for the stars while chained to human operatives.
'Woyzeck on the Highveld', Barbican, London EC2 (020 7638 8891) Tue to Sat
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