HERALD, Glasgow, UK, May 30, 2002
to suspend all your disbelief
American has turned puppetry on its head with his radical approach to
by MARY BRENNAN
the age of seven, Ronnie Burkett knew exactly what he wanted to do with
his life. For one day, doubtless flicked by the finger of fate, the family
encyclopaedia fell open at the page entitled puppets. Young Ronnie was
smitten, captivated, enslaved. "I looked at it, at the picture of
someone surrounded by all these characters, and I thought 'that's what
I'll do for the rest of my life'.
"Indeed, here I sit, doing exactly that. I mean, it could have fallen
open to proctologist. Who knows? It could have been a different career
entirely." A darkly roguish chuckle rises up and closes off the sentence
before Burkett can muse merrily on, playing around with other p-words
that could have spelled professional disaster for an adult who freely
admits he's still a loner on the inside, and still finds the outside world
confusing and "a bit scarey".
Now, whatever his parents, or the other inhabitants of Medicine Head,
Alberta (which did not, by the way, have a practising puppeteer in its
midst), envisaged Burkett doing with his calling, it's unlikely they imagined
characters like Edna Rural or Esme Massengill. Or a scenario like Street
of Blood, which ends its internationally successful tour at Glasgow's
Tramway this weekend.
it Edna pricks her finger while quilting, causing an image of Christ's
face to materialise on the cloth. Her son, Eden, a karaoke-singing, gay
terrorist, with vengeance on his mind, comes home. Esme, an ageing Hollywood
actress, who just happens to be a vampire, rolls into town looking for
rejuvenation. Botox won't do: it has to be blood. You couldn't have a
more radical, disconcerting deployment of puppets, short of Sooty and
Sweep turning out to be crackheads. Even then, you're several twists and
issues short of what Burkett explores with his Theatre of Marionettes.
"What I've strived to do," he says "is create a theatre
of humanity and none of the actors are human."
of Blood addresses need, appetite, hunger, both physical and emotional,
at pressingly relevant social, political and personal levels. It confronts
those actions, those types of folk who callously drain the life-blood
out of communities and people. It twists a knife-edge of satirical insight
in the jugular of self-interest and cover-up, be it Esme's vampiric exploitation
of her celebrity status, or the contaminated blood supply scandal that
caused outrage in his native Canada. Religion, Aids, adoption, contemporary
bloodlust, they all enter the lists of Burkett's concerns, and they all
feature in the writing that powers his puppet plays.
Burkett committed to puppetry before he knew what was entailed in the
making and staging of productions. That probably proved a blessing. It
meant he didn't follow any guidelines about suitable scripts and suitable
characters, with "suitable translating as appropriate for entertaining
under-fives at children's parties".
He looked inside his head, and there he found fairy tales and fantasies,
a sense of humour influenced by the Carry On films that he grew up with,
and, like a perpetually, spinning glitter-ball, the camp Hollywood culture
that has a sultry cigarette in one hand, ruby lippers on its feet, and
all kinds of passion, romance, and reckless promises on its lips. Oh,
and a tragic revolver loaded
with jealousy in an inside pocket or teensy, spangled clutch bag.
Burkett's fascinated immersion in all these genres was accelerated by
the same impulse that connected him to puppetry. He was, he says, a "loner
child". Though he could read films, literature, and symbolism, and
delight in it all, whether it was glamorous or grotesque, he couldn't
read the real world with a similar ease or pleasure. The adult's increasing
success, and the awards, of which there are several, haven't
really altered that. "I think I'm still a loner, though I am, publicly,
gregarious. Put a beer in my hand and I'll tell a tale, y'know. But, for
me, the outside world is still confusing, a bit scarey, and I don't really
understand it. So, being able to shrink it, with puppetry, and examine
it that way, present it to an audience and say 'here's what I think. What
do you think?', is very appealing.
"It appealed to me when I was a child, because I could do it all
myself. I could make these things, talk for these things, could have them
talk to each other. That initial hook is what keeps me going every day,
with a little more insight, now. It's the same appeal of taking the big
world and condensing it until it's understandable."
There's still the business of conveying that appeal to the adult audience
he writes and performs for. The key to that, it seems, is not so much
the craft of manipulating the puppets, but of manipulating us, the spectators.
Burkett genially explains: "Unless the audience starts breathing
for a puppet, for Edna Rural, say, she's not going to come to life. So
I've had to learn how to control an audience's breathing. It is a technique.
It's to do with acting. I walk on stage every night deciding 'you're going
to care about this character. You may not agree with Edna Rural, but you
will care about her'. That's acting, I think." The Canadian theatre
scene agrees with him. "I never used the words actor or writer about
myself, you know. I always just said puppeteer. Then they started saying
'you're a playwright. You're an actor'. That freed me up. I morphed from
just being a puppeteer."
He laughs, maybe because most actors and writers don't spend
months on end sculpting their characters' faces into shape, or whittling
arms, legs, and torsos. Or maybe it's because, so far, he's been in the
spotlight by proxy: channelling aspects of himself through puppets that
can open up in ways he, himself, finds hard to do.
He's about to face that challenge with his next production, a one-man
show without puppets. "It's six characters, I'm playing them all,
and they're all puppeteers. It's a world I happen to know, and what a
bunch of freaks and oddballs they are, believe me. It's wildly funny,
very dark. Very mid-life, dare I say, 'cos I couldn't stand on stage and
do an ageing, bad-boy show, where I talk about everyone I've slept with,
then blame my mother, there's enough of those around already."
There are not many puppet shows, however, that are as provocative, as
screamingly funny, or as poignant and touching as the ones Burkett creates.
The last ever performances of Street of Blood at Tramway, Glasgow, from
tomorrow until Sunday at 8pm.