Devised by the company
Blind Summit Theatre
"I'm a three-man Japanese bunraku-style puppet", says the three-man Japanese bunraku-style puppet. "And these are my operators"—and he introduces Nick who's doing his feet, Sean who's on his right arm and holding his body by pinching his bum, and Mark who's on his left arm and head, and doing his voice. This is meta-puppetry, you could say; surreal postmodern puppetry; stand-up puppetry; and, in the odd moment, it seems very much like improvised puppetry.
The puppet is on top of a table, and he rambles on at some length about the dimensions of said table, how long he's been on it (40 years apparently), and the techniques that his operators use to make him move realistically. A latecomer creeps in, puppet stops and watches them pointedly, and then suggests he runs through that whole last bit again. And then he does so—a speeded-up summary re-enactment. This apparently ad hoc little addition seems to make one of the puppeteers crack up. How the hell is this possible? Only with the consummate skill of the puppeteers, surely, and an almost supernatural unspoken understanding between them.
Blind Summit's show is on at 10PM at the Pleasance Dome, which by late evening is normally almost entirely populated by stand-up. But I can't imagine any comedy show being funnier, more profound or more enthralling than this.
The company say they're influenced by Beckett and Sartre among others, and you can see what they mean. Our puppet hero (never named), while he goes on about this and that, loses his train of thought, starts again etc, is really putting off what he told us was the main aim of his performance: to re-enact the last twelve hours of Moses' life, in real time.
Of course he never gets round to doing it. But the meaning of the reference gradually becomes clear. "Moses died alone after 40 years in the desert", he mutters bitterly, and suddenly we have a glimpse of his lonely existence, stranded on the tabletop for decades, unable to summon the courage to move off it—dismissing the area underneath the table (i.e. the floor) as not worth his venturing into. There's this sort of fug of existential malaise behind his chirpy showing-off.
Of course this sounds ridiculous, but that's the joy of the play: that it gets us to invest in the feelings of the puppet, even while explocitly telling us that it's absurd to do so. It is somehow simultaneously very funny and profoundly sad. And that's not even mentioning the girl who after a while comes and sits at the table and reads. And can't seem to see the puppet, even though he shouts at her, headbutts her and stamps on her shoulders. He's baffled and furious—she's interrupting his show, her presence makes absolutely no sense—"You're dramaturgically inconsistent!" he fumes. But when she eventually leaves he sort of wants her back; she was some company, at least. And that maybe is all the sense that we need to make of her.
Two further small pieces follow the opening mini-play with our bunraku protagonist. In the middle piece—the strangest and most abstract—a series of disembodied heads dance in strange formations behind three picture frames. It's beautifully choreographed but seems to have no other purpose than to display the puppeteers' skills.
But then the last piece is a worthy finale. A suitcase full of pieces of A4 paper is set on the table; the first piece of paper brought out of it tells us that this is going to be a demonstration of "Le Marionnettisme Français"—French puppetry—and the four performers all fix cigarettes in their mouths. Then they proceed to take the pieces of paper out of the suitcase in a precise order and float them through the air in appropriate movements: a picture of birds flies up high, a picture of a car shoots towards a picture of an old woman crossing the road… and we're told the thrilling story of a hit-and-run accident that becomes a police car chase that becomes a desperate man's last stand. It's so clever and so slick, with so many hilarious touches of detail. And I can barely imagine the skill of the performers as they move around each other, picking up each piece of paper in perfect order within a fraction of a second. Well-drilled hardly covers it. All praise to Mark Down, Nick Barnes, Sarah Calver and Sean Garratt; and to Blind Summit for daring to do this.
Reviewer: Corinne Salisbury