Scotsman, Glasgow, UK, May 29, 2002
Burketts play Street of Blood deals with a range of themes, from
AIDS to religion, from family ties to a contaminated-blood scandal which
left hundreds of Canadians infected with HIV. It does all this with humour
and compassion, and leaves audiences amazed at how much they have identified
with the characters, who include a karaoke-singing gay terrorist and a
lady who sees the face of Christ in a quilt square.
All the more amazing that those characters are puppets. Burketts
Theatre of Marionettes is possibly the only puppet show in the world that
comes with a warning that it is not suitable for children. Arriving at
Glasgows Tramway this week as part of a short UK tour, Burkett acknowledges
that this is a mind-bending concept for British audiences. Ask people
to name puppets and you might get Sooty and Sweep, Kermit and Miss Piggy,
Punch and Judy. Entertainment for the kids, not a gothic human drama.
We would do better if we looked at our history. When Mr Punch arrived
here in the 17th century, he was street entertainment for all, a bawdy,
lecherous villain and purveyor of mayhem. Only in the Victorian era was
he cleaned up for the kids. In other countries, puppets are an established
part of mainstream theatre. In the Soviet Bloc, puppeteers pushed the
boundaries of satire when no other performer was safe to do so. Today
in Indonesia, shadow puppetry made in the ancient tradition has a bang-up-to-date
political subtext, and provides ordinary people with a key source of information.
Recently, there have been moves to rehabilitate puppetry for adults in
Britain. The Bath International Puppet Festival, held each April, has
established itself as the showcase for adult puppetry in the UK, bringing
in the top puppeteers from overseas. This years festival included
the European premiere of Scarey by Australias Snuff Puppets, about
a circus in which monsters come to watch a freak-show performed by humans,
and One Way Street from US Sandglass Theatre, based on the writings of
Walter Benjamin. An increase in homegrown puppetry led to the coining
of the term "Britpup".
At the same time, puppetry is surfacing in mainstream theatre. Nigel Jamiesons
The Theft of Sita, a contemporary show using Indonesian shadow puppetry
described by its maker as "the Simpsons on speed", was a big
success at Riverside Studios. Puppets appear in the Olivier-award winning
Shockheaded Peter, which has now transferred to the West End, and Robert
Lepages highly acclaimed Far Side of the Moon.
Scottish experimental theatre company Vanishing Point will use puppetry
in their new show, Invisible Man, a play without text, which opens at
Edinburghs Traverse Theatre on 13 June. Artistic director Matthew
Lenton says that it is one of a variety of theatrical techniques that
the company is using - alongside animation, digital imaging and physical
performance - to tell the story of two violin-makers who live in an oppressive
"All of these things are tools of theatre. Puppetry is an old tool,
while digital imaging is new tool. I think that unless theatre embraces
all these things it will die. Were living in really exciting times
in terms of the things available to us as theatre-makers, and we have
to start to play with them, see how they can challenge and affect audiences.
Theatre for children is already experimenting with a lot of these things,
but work for adults remains based on text, actors coming on, saying words
and going off again."
Many puppeteers also believe that the future of their art form lies in
escaping its ghetto and breaking into the theatrical mainstream. To date,
Burkett is one of the few puppeteers who has successfully emerged from
the "puppetry ghetto" and risen to high acclaim. One critic
called him "the most explosive presence on the international scene
since Robert Lepage", and New York Wire writers voted Street of Blood
one of their top ten shows of the 2000-1 season, alongside The Full Monty
and Mel Brookss The Producers. Burkett himself started out touring
childrens shows round schools and libraries. At theatre school,
he started to question why puppetry never made it into the mainstream.
"Luckily for me I was around and the right age when the Canadian
fringe theatre movement began. At the very first fringe festival in Canada,
I suddenly found myself among dancers who wanted to speak and playwrights
who wanted to read their own words. And I could do these shows for adults
that I could actually call theatre. My constant battle, my whole career,
has been dealing with people saying that this is for kids. Even on this
tour Ive had e-mails from people talking about how the work affected
them, but when they were first told by the person who had bought the tickets
that they were going to a puppet show, they tried to find every excuse
not to go. In their place, Id probably do the same."
There is a perception that puppets are inferior to live actors, but Burkett
believes that the fact that they are inanimate objects is part of their
power. They require us to use our imaginations. "The puppeteer gives
the puppet movement and voice, but the audience gives it breath,"
he says. "So the theatricality of the medium is that both sides have
to work to make it come to life, and when that happens it really is magical."
Although Street of Blood contains the on-stage rape of a marionette and
a crucifixion scene, Burkett says he never sets out to shock. "My
job is to seduce the audience into caring about the characters. It would
be one thing if I just went on stage and did naughty things with puppets
or tried to shock. Ive never done that. It just happens that the
journeys these characters take include some shocking things, as Im
sure every life does. The show is also very funny, the shocking moments
happen out of warmth and great humour. People dont expect that.
I think what shocks them is that they actually imbue these characters
with breath and start caring about them."
He says that even in countries with a more robust puppetry tradition than
Britain and Canada, audiences are surprised by the weight of text in his
shows. He writes scripts for puppets as if they were real actors, which
makes his job - holding the strings and providing the voices for some
40 marionettes - a major feat. On the other hand, audiences respond to
the dialogue and the ideas.
"I have noticed in the last five years that people are longing for
the acoustic voice in the theatre," he says. "We all have e-mails
and pagers and mobiles, we can all talk digitally to one another. But
I noticed about five years ago, people coming to shows where there is
talking on stage. Thats what I do. I also talk about ideas. I think
thats what a growing number of theatre patrons are hungry for. People
are surprised to leave a puppet show thinking."
Reactions to the show vary. Some people are moved, some are stunned that
"theyve actually watched puppets and cared for them for a couple
of hours", some walk out after ten minutes. However, Burkett sets
himself standards that are no different to any other good theatre practitioner.
"People have paid good money for this. It should be enjoyable, stimulating,
inspiring, challenging, providing a laugh or a tear." And it does.
The future of puppetry, he says, is in the hands of actors. "You
can make the most beautiful thing on the planet, but unless it is put
in the hands of somebody who can act through it, it will always just be
a clever prop. I think puppetry will broaden and find its way more and
more into the theatre if people who are actors take up its potential."