Festival Mondial des Theatres de Marionnettes de Charleville-Mezieres 2013
The biennial Festival Mondial des Theatres de Marionnettes de Charleville-Mezieres celebrated its 17th edition this year, with 95 companies from 25 different countries in the official programme. Just as many companies were participating in the OFF section of the festival, both indoors and on the streets. The festival also offered seminars, talks and exhibitions for the puppetry arts professionals and enthusiasts.
On the first day of the festival, the premiere of ‘Ignorance’ by Canadian company The Old Trout Puppet Workshop took place in the Théâtre de Charleville-Mézières to an invited audience only. It is a documentary of sorts about the pursuit of happiness through history. The story is narrated in French by an off-stage voice. The main plot situates the story in the pre-historic era and is interwoven with different sketches portraying some of the pains of modern times.
Despite a sophisticated technical design, the content is simplistic and full of annoying clichés, especially when portraying the differences between the sexes. On the puppetry side, the puppeteers tend to bring too much attention to themselves, taking the focus away from their puppets.
The festival, however, was officially inaugurated for the general public by the Compagnie de L'Homme Debout later on that evening with a spectacle of lights, sound and pyrotechnics. These accompanied a colossal seven metres tall wicker puppet, which departed from the huge Place Ducale and paraded around town, followed by a multitude of astounded spectators.
The Bread & Puppet Theatre offered two productions to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary. ‘La Manufacture de l'exultation’, a new play created this year, is a satire that takes inspiration from the works of the Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca in order to comment on the political and religious absurdities of civilisation.
With a very simple mis-en-scene, and using lighting and sound minimally but to maximum effect, the company is able to depict strong and archetypal images. Wearing white head masks, the actors manipulate huge three-dimensional cut-out puppets that come alive and express different emotions when their positions and angles are altered. Actions are precise and economical, and conventions are continually broken with intelligent humour in order to get the point across, exposing the inhumanity of human-kind.
The second play was staged after a very short interval, just long enough to change the set. ‘Dead Man Rises’, from 1962, is a poem about life and death staged by actors in long robes who hold up masked heads, and glide across the stage with slow and controlled movements. The piece is a stylised visual play of light and shadow.
A very different production, ‘Red Shoes’ was presented by Cie. Acide Mélancolique from Belgium. This piece interrogates the subjects of gender, sexuality and identity, and is both emotionally and intellectually moving. It relies heavily on text, which is read on stage by one actress and is represented visually by the actions of a dancer. Even though some object manipulation is in use, one wonders if this production really fits within a festival dedicated to puppetry.
I was eager to see Handspring Puppet Company’s festival offering but it turned out to be a big disappointment. ‘Ouroboros’ uses bunraku-style puppets and projected animation to tell the love story of a poet and a dancer through the passage of time. The puppets are beautiful, and generally skilfully operated, but ultimately the manipulation fails to reflect the soul of the characters.
The poet is not at all poetical and the dancer cannot dance convincingly enough. The music doesn't support either the characters or the story. And the whole structure of the play lacks clarity and the pacing is repetitive, with a clumsy and messy mis-en-scene. The storyline is confusing and banal. What more can I say? What promised to be an emotional journey turned out to be a deadening trip.
Just before heading back to the UK, I managed to catch a show that was programmed outdoors, free of charge and made the festival for me. With ‘La Femme Blanche’, artist Magali Chouinard produces an everlasting impression. She arrives into an empty space in total silence and, with sublime delicacy, transforms it completely into a magical world of poetry, as ancient and deep as the beginning of time.
Her skill both as performer and as puppeteer is unique, as well as her particular aesthetics of grey-scale landscapes, costumes and creatures, which she produces out of a mysterious travelling case. After revealing her universe to the mesmerised crowd, she humbly leaves the space in silence, a silence she has imposed for the duration of the whole show, asking nothing from the public. A magical gift.