'Portofino Ballad' – Peter Rinderknecht
The Pit is the Barbican’s smallest theatre space, found after descending a long flight of stairs into the art centre’s belly. Ideally suited for more intimate shows, it is here that audiences encounter the peculiar tale ‘Portofino Ballad’, by the Swiss actor and director Peter Rinderknecht.
‘Encounter’ is not a word chosen lightly: the first thing the audience sees is Peter, a late middle-aged man with wide eyes and a shock of grey hair, sitting distractedly upon a small platform playing some kind of game. Behind him is an immense double bass thrust straight into the platform so that it stands upright. Peter acknowledges the audience and apologises – he knows he should start the show but he really is very involved with his game, and would everyone mind if he finished it? The rules of the game, like the presence of the double bass, go unexplained.
Chatting idly, Peter shows off his red velvet jacket; he examines – disapprovingly – a Japanese watch owned by an audience member (he believes Swiss watches superior); he comments that a double bass contains too much air, at which point a little door opens and a cuckoo pops out of it to announce the hour. It is, Peter says despairingly, fifteen minutes late.
And so begins a most eclectic mix of improvisation, puppetry and storytelling. The double bass is revealed to be a veritable box of delights, opening up to reveal the home of the cuckoo and his son, portrayed by carved wooden puppets. The little sets are exquisitely detailed – Peter points out a small coffee mug that he glued to the tiny table himself – and full of surprises. A story slowly emerges from the rambling narrative: that of the older cuckoo’s dissatisfaction with his restless progeny, who wants nothing else but to listen to rock music. They decide, with some help from Peter, to take a trip to Portofino.
Peter Rinderknecht is a wonderful performer, with an easy style ideally suited to this kind of performance. His wry sense of humour and habit of speaking in several different languages when distracted might remind audience members of an older, eccentric European uncle.
Unfortunately Rinderknecht’s puppeteering is not as finely developed as his other performance skills. Smaller puppets are handled roughly and without much care for developing their characters and, when the play focuses on these miniature puppets, he loses the audience a bit, particularly the younger children. However a later sequence, involving larger puppets, water wings and an Italian waiter, brilliantly conjures a melancholic evening in a portside town with but a few props and careful lighting.
While perhaps a tad uneven, and better considered storytelling enhanced with props than an outright puppet show, ‘Portofino Ballad’ is a fine chance to introduce children to a different, slightly strange and imaginative kind of theatre.