Vivaldi's The Four Seasons a Reimagining

Finn Caldwell and Tobie Olié
Shakespeare's Globe and Gyre and Gimble
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Puppeteers Ben Thompson, Elisa de Grey, Ayve Leventis, John Leader and Craig Leo Credit: Steve Tanner
Musicians and puppeteers Credit: Steve Tanner

This is Vivaldi played on baroque instruments with his Four Seasons concerti inspiring a sensitive performance by skilled puppeteers enhanced by the candlelit atmosphere of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

The theatre's scena are given new coverings that link with the vision of nature in Vivaldi’s work and a swirl of curved tables on the stage that seem scattered with gold leaves. Into this setting come a pair of fiddlers who, after they have begun playing, move up to the musicians' gallery to join their fellows on harpsichord, viola and cello. The five puppeteers enter through the audience, light tapers from a candle and onstage light chandeliers and listen for a while before reconfiguring the tables.

It is a formal opening to a performance that is wordless, more like a ballet than a play for the movement is choreography rather than mime.

For those well acquainted with The Four Seasons, the music may surprise. This introductory music draws from some of his other concerti and other musicians too and when the story begins it is not the original Four Seasons score but composer Max Richter’s “reimagining”, created as a way of reclaiming beautiful music that has become blighted by exposure in commercials and on muzac. In fact it is yet a further adaptation by the Globe’s Director of Music Bill Barclay to match this playhouse and ensemble.

Vivaldi’s concerti celebrate the four seasons but this creation is about human life, not nature, the cycle of human existence, not the year. It is enacted by unclothed, uncharacterised puppet figures that gain meaning and personality from position and movement and from what each individual in the audience sees in them.

What seems a male figure is brought to sits on a bench, all five puppeteers behind it. Very, very slowly it comes to life. It is joined by another: at first they are not friendly but gradually they reach out and hands touch. The figures seem almost identical, though perhaps one has thinner limbs, and when they kiss this seems a gay pairing.

Later, when a child appears, it may seem heterosexual but this is about humanity, it doesn’t have to be specific. It explores finding out about the world, caring relationships, dealing with problems. The thunder and lightning of Vivaldi’s score here suggests warfare, strange dark shapes like clouds the problems and worries of life. A father figure is trapped by falling masonry, the child tries to help but is told to escape, child becomes adult, the cycle continues. A new generation is born and flies freely a symbol that could be celebrating achievement or even an infant called to the heaven “Red Priest” Vivaldi believed in.

However the sometimes ambiguous action is interpreted, there is no doubt that the introduction of a playful puss is a highlight, especially delightful as it interacts with the child, and it is not only the puppets’ actions that are effective but the whole image, including the puppeteers, looks lovely.

Despite its moments of violence and presentation of human struggle, the effect becomes contemplative rather than dramatic and, after ninety minutes of emotional involvement, seems to end with a question rather than the musical resolution of the Vivaldi’s original.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton