Something Very Far Away

Mark Arends
Unicorn Theatre

This is puppetry with a difference. It is a show created with stick operated puppets and cut-out silhouettes and both modelled and projected backgrounds that are all operated before video cameras on four separate little "stages". They are then edited live to create a charming half-hour story aimed at age 8 and upwards.

If you saw Katie Mitchell's treatment of Virginia Woolf's The Waves at the National Theatre, you will know what I mean when I say that this is a sort of miniature version. Although admiring the technical skill of that, I felt it was more like being in a film studio that a theatre. For me the essence of theatre is the contact between actor and audience, not artifice.

Since with puppets the performers make contract through them and we have become increasingly used to seeing their manipulation rather than it being hidden, I found myself more accepting. Entering the theatre, you walk into a world of technology, cameras, mixers, what look like television screens (though actually they are not) which then becomes a hive of activity with operators David Emmings, Avye Leventis, Julia Sienger and Ben Whybrow operating characters and settings, sometimes visibly sometimes in what seems near darkness, although the image on camera may be a bright one.

It is a very simple tale told without dialogue, the only words on signs or written on book pages such as an opening statement: Telescopes are like time machines. The deeper into space you look the further into the past you see." The lack of language makes it appropriate for international touring; you can change the written signage, and even if the audience aren't good readers they can probably follow the story.

It presents us with a man called Kepler who loves the cosmos and his wife Tomasina. The names aren't mention in the performance or on the programme card, so beyond his telescope there is no connection with the sixteenth century astronomer who worked out the laws of planetary motion. We see them very happy together, reading, sharing things, going off on a trip to the circus. This is a sequence that demonstrates the economy of the format. You need only the lion's mouth to pop a tamer's head in, just the feet of the tightrope walker need to be visible, a crowd can be a row of heads without bodies. It somehow adds to the charm that sometimes the camera framing lets you see just where they end or reveal an operator's finger, and the sticks attached to limbs that move them, the strings on which objects hang are always visible.

The problem is what you watch: the large screen? the little stages? the way puppets are operated in front of them? the guitarist Mark Arends, who has provided a lovely score as well as writing and directing the piece? the other operators preparing the next setting? Everything is going on at once and you can miss things as your attention darts from one thing to another. When Tomasina died at the circus I missed how, though her husband carrying a limp body followed by a funeral procession confirmed that she was dead.

That is when Kepler takes advantage of the truth of that opening statement, for if you are looking at things from which the light takes many years to reach you, you are truly looking at the past. Kepler goes off into space and looks back at Earth so that he can watch their happy times together.

It is a charming piece and, as a one off, captivating. But let's keep technology in its place, subservient to the real theatrical experience not replacing it, however much fun it may be playing with the electronics.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton