Age, Melbourne (Australia) October 21, 2002
morality tale, with strings attached
BY HELEN THOMSON
The Czechoslovakian use of puppet theatre as a subversive tool of resistance
to Nazi occupation during World War II is little known here. To see Ronnie
Burkett's recreation of it in Tinka's New Dress is a revelation, a dramatic
shift from our assumption that puppets constitute children's entertainment.
These puppets are political and they enact a frightening struggle with
the totalitarian Common Good, representing the Nazis, but also all oppressive
regimes of yesterday, today and the future.
More important than their struggle for personal survival is their fight
for art itself, for the freedom of spirit and imagination that art represents.
The remarkable performance by Canadian Burkett, the wonderful array of
puppets, the ingenious carousel set, and the play itself, amount to a
theatrical tour de force of great power and affect. Burkett's vocal skills
alone are amazing, but he is also a master of the art of puppetry, using
his marionettes with a sophisticated self-reflexivity that ironically
comments on itself as an art form. So, like a Russian doll, layers of
performance open up before us.
First is the "real" world, played by puppets, of the fairground
where the elderly Stefan and his apprentice puppeteer Carl, perform with
their famous puppets Franz and Schnitzel. The politically alienated Carl
transforms the Franz and Schnitzel show into dangerous satire performing
in an underground of non-conformists led by the drag-queen Morag. From
here they are forced into a ghetto, where his sister Tinka creates costumes
for puppets and humans alike.
The second layer is the Franz and Schnitzel show, where the Fat Lady keeps
threatening to sing, and Schnitzel is forced to conform to Franz' instructions.
But there is yet a third Franz and Schnitzel show, appropriated by Fipsi,
who has become a State Artist, as propaganda for the Common Good.
Behind the puppet performances, dreadful things are happening, people
are disappearing, and audiences thinning. Eventually only Tinka and Stefan
are left to carry on the puppet tradition, the practice that represents
the free spirit of artistic life and also dooms it to destruction.
Their final defiance accepts that while artists can be destroyed, art
itself will go on regardless.
Over-arching all this is yet another performative layer, that represented
by the puppeteer Burkett, who improvises the Franz and Schnitzel shows,
incorporating much topical festival satire.
He represents the anarchic power that political censorship cannot extinguish.
Like children we are liberated by the diminutive "play" of these
little people, but they also convey a powerful and timeless morality tale.
Burkett has borrowed from many sources, from The Diary of Anne Frank to
Cabaret, even ironically throwing in the tainted phrase "Work will
make you free" at one point.
He has certainly re-invigorated the art form of puppetry into an unforgettable
experience, a great hit for this festival.