The Handsome Handspring Book
Handspring Puppet Company
Reviewed by Ray DaSilva
A ground-breaking book –just as the work of Handspring Puppet Company is itself ground-breaking. The text consists of a series of essays which look at the principles, values, and beliefs of the two founders of the company Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler and their group of collaborators. In places it becomes complicated as the authors delve into, analyse and put into words their perceptions of the complex relationships within maker-puppet-puppeteer-audience - as in the open style of Handspring, and may be best taken in small doses. It is however a book that you can pick up any time and find new things in the gorgeous photographs. They reward careful study and reveal an insight into the company’s attention to detail and technical innovation. It is possible to confirm the expressiveness of the ‘rough carved’ puppet heads by Adrian Kohler and to see how the overt nature of the company’s work extends from visible puppeteers to the open structures of the puppets themselves –like three-dimensional x-rays, and their exoskeletons in the case of the War Horse.
A large chunk of the work is devoted to Adrian Kohler’s chronology of the company’s artistic development via its succession of productions in which he acknowledges throughout inspirations and influences from people they have worked with. William Kentridge in an interview with Jane Taylor also talks about the cumulative effect of collaboration between different disciplines. They all learnt early on that audiences are not put off by visible mechanics, and Kohler talks of the liberation experienced in ‘Episodes of an Easter Rising’ (1985) when the director stripped away the backdrop allowing the operators freedom to walk around with their marionettes and even to kneel down to assist them with props. This exposed style was carried forward in all subsequent productions as were other discoveries. The leg movement of the Hyena in ‘Faustus in Africa’ (1995) with ‘fixed tendons’ was later used for the horses in ‘War Horse’ (2007), as was the conscious understanding of breath realised in ‘Il Ritorno d’Ulisse’ (1998) which ensured one of the first priorities was visible horse breath. The essay concludes with the ‘tutorial note’ produced by Tommy Luther, one of the puppeteers, when he needed to pass on his role in the operation of Joey in ‘War Horse’ to a new performer.
The final essay in the book by Basil Jones tackles the authorship of a puppet production. He makes good points in his argument that both the designer and the performer are co-authors along with the script writer and the audience. He draws examples from the company’s work and concludes by addressing puppeteers directly where he explains practical principles of movement.
Sandwiched between those two essays are four others: Adrienne Sichel, journalist and theatre critic, in ‘Escaping the Puppet Ghetto’ tracks through the productions identifying elements that make Handspring special and authentically African; Gerhard Marx explores function and malfunction in Handspring’s work – contradictions in terms of the exposition of the inanimate nature of the puppets with the audience’s perception of their lifelikeness; Lesego Rampolokeng contributes a rap poem which speaks of his experience with ‘Faustus in Africa’as well as the Kentridge interview.
The book is edited by Jane Taylor who, in seeking to define the ambiguous nature of puppetry in her introduction, states that the enigma of the puppet is not captured by literal definitions. “In their own work, Handspring Puppet Company has never put aside the riddle, and in every performance the puppeteers demonstrate a regard for the strange processes within which they are making meaning. Their commitment to the negotiation of belief between puppeteer, puppet and audience is total.”
280 pages: 250 colour photos.
Price : £35.00.
Published by David Krut Publishing, South Africa.
Copies can be obtained from the Scottish Mask and Puppet Centre see weblink in right hand column -->
Puppet Woyzeck carved by Adrian Kohler for ‘Woyzeck on the Highveld’