'Hand Stories' – Yeung Fai | London International Mime Festival
Yeung Fai is a fifth generation Chinese puppeteer. When his hand puppets throw their coats in the air and slip into them, or fight each other with tiny weapons, his dexterity and expressiveness are impressive. But rather than performing a set of traditional Chinese vignettes, as traditional hand puppetry might dictate, ‘Hand Stories’ takes us on an emotional and poetic journey that goes deep into Yeung’s own past.
The piece is directed and performed by Yeung Fai himself, with his assistant played by Yoann Pencolé. Over the course of an hour, he tells his autobiographical story through puppetry, photography and film. The pivotal point comes early, as we watch his father being pursued by the Cultural Revolution – represented by a huge and oppressive scaly steel dragon. Soon after that, in silence, we see his father trying to carry a huge boulder uphill, with sweat and persistence.
As a hand puppet, his father is a beautifully crafted object and the puppetry is so smooth that it's easy to forget the mastery of the hand work underneath the costume. Every one of Yeung’s characters is accompanied by perfectly timed vocal noises. Sometimes, for a brief surprising moment, they interact directly with their puppeteer.
But Yeung Fai's story never dwells on anything serious for too long. Every good story needs a magical moment or some kind of divine intervention. We meet Yeung Fai, as a non-puppet, holed up in a box room in America. He's disillusioned and miserable. Busking with puppets isn't working out for him. Enter the angel – perhaps the most extraordinary mutation in the tradition of Chinese hand puppetry yet. Suffice to say, this hand puppet is a huge fan of Queen.
But that's not the only break with tradition. Yeung Fai literally turns the show around to reveal how it's done. In the absence of a son, we see him training his chosen assistant in an effort to pass on his skills. While the traditional puppet show is projected onto the back wall for us to see, we simultaneously can watch what's going on backstage. We see puppets hanging in sacks and the puppeteers mopping each other's brows while they perform. They are a beautifully choreographed and, at times, acrobatic comedy double act.
From the miniature magic of watching a puppet's delicate hands turning the pages of a book in silence – to the pantomime-style 'he's behind you' moments you might find in a Punch and Judy show – Yeung Fai's work is a meditation on the dexterous potential of the hands that never takes itself too seriously.
'Hand Stories' – Yeung Fai
The Pit, Barbican
London International Mime Festival 2013