Going native – Le Festival Mondial des Theatres des Marionnettes
In a matter of weeks, puppetry's dependable pilgrims will descend upon the hospitable mecca of Charleville-Mézières. Nestled in the northeast of France, 150 long miles away from Paris, this picturesque village has hosted Le Festival Mondial des Theatres des Marionnettes (The World Festival of Puppet Theatres) since 1961. Regarded as the largest festival in the world devoted to puppetry, this year's programme boasts over one hundred performances from 25 different countries.
From 20-29 September, the festival will provide a tremendous opportunity for the puppetry enthusiast to experience a rich variety of performance styles from numerous cultures: China, Chile, Israel, Finland and even South Africa's renowned Handspring Puppet Company, to name a few. With the added treats of several exhibitions, films, professional meetings and countless street acts, this is a well-rounded opportunity to be immersed in all things puppet.
An international festival of more traditional theatre would present obvious difficulties to UK audiences due to language barriers but, fortunately, puppetry is an art form reliant on visual communication. The puppet is our magical actor that can speak silently to almost anyone. However, this doesn't mean the puppet theatre is without text.
In my experience French theatre can be very heavy on text, and a festival based in France is naturally saturated with French companies. I witnessed this most recently at the seventh Biennale International des Arts de la Marionnette of Paris (BIAM), where I found the performances that didn't rely heavily on text had the most impact for me. I learned it is possible to get a lot out of a French festival, even if you don't speak the language.
Headlining BIAM, Ulrike Quade's 'Radio Exit Live' accurately described itself as existing in the middle times between life, death and final departure. Quade was not trained as an actor or writer, but as a scenographer, and her voice for communication could be seen on the heavily-designed stage, which was filled with life-size puppets dangling from the rafters; quarter size foam figures passing through; a trio of dolls manipulated by flirtatious actresses; and several Siamese twins. With this visual barrage, I could ignore the spoken French and receive the total vocab of the stage, appreciating the piece for its visual, sonic and energetic dynamics.
Another stand out at BIAM was Magali Chouinard's 'La Femme Blanche', which is typically performed in the open streets but due to weather complications was moved into a library. The young audience sat enthralled throughout the graceful exploration of solitude. With a white mask, Chouinard expertly revealed a series of black raven statues, armed wolf characters, petit old woman dolls and an endearing puppet of a young girl. By the end they were all assembled on her body.
A last, but far from least, highlight was Julika Mayer's profoundly public 'Reprendre Son Souffle'. Enacted on a sidewalk in front of the cinema, passersby were given headphones to listen to a soundtrack of environmental recordings, melodic music and pre-recorded interviews. Simultaneously, puppets were improvisationaly manipulated by three puppeteers and often times left alone, pondering motionless from the serenity of a bus stop bench. While not reliant on one specific narrative, the company succeeded in expressing numerous emotions in spontaneous scenarios, all in direct contact with the audience.
For anyone interested in visual theatre I, of course, recommend going to the Festival Mondial, but I do suggest you seek out productions that have proven successful for their international appeal. Chouinard will return to Charleville to present the same 'La Femme Blanche', whereas Quade will be bringing two different productions – 'Antigone' and 'Munch and Van Gogh'.
I am especially anxious to see 'Antigone' and the opportunity to witness Greek mythology recreated by a German director's Dutch company, presented in French with a cast of specially made Japanese bunraku puppets. This is a first-rate test of the globalisation of theatre!
You may also want to bring a tent. That little town fills up fast...