Belfast Telegraph

Masters of puppets

By Matthew McCreary

The magical world of puppets will bring the stage at the Lyric Theatre to life for an unforgettable show.

The world of puppetry has enjoyed something of an unexpected resurgence in recent years, with shows such as Avenue Q and War Horse becoming huge West End hits and opening up the genre to a whole new adult audience.

And the team behind the wooden stars of the latter production — Handspring Puppet Company — will be providing what is anticipated to be one of the magical moments of this year’s festival.

Woyzeck on the Highveld is an adaptation of German writer Georg Büchner's play about the struggle of an ordinary man against an uncaring society.

The action has been transposed from the original setting, in which Woyzeck is a German soldier in the 1800s, to making him a migrant worker in 1950s South Africa against a backdrop of barren industrialisation.

“It’s not a message play as such, but it does deal with darker themes of life and humanity — class struggle and social oppression as well as migrant labour, language and post colonial issues,” says Jason Potgieter, one of the puppeteers.

These are based on the Japanese bunraku style of puppets, which are manipulated by means of rods.

“The puppets are about two-thirds the size of human beings and take two or three people to operate,” says Jason.

Strikingly, the operators will not be hidden away from the audience, but very much visible on the stage as they go about their work. “That’s very much part of the Handspring magic — we’re there but what you see is the puppets,” says Jason.

While the mechanics of operating the puppets are challenging enough, there are also the demands of breathing life into what is essentially a wooden object.

“It’s not difficult, just different,” says Jason. “We’ve all had training in theatre and performance. For me, acting is about embodying the energy of the character, but with puppetry it’s about taking it a step further, transferring the energy of the character into the object.

“It’s actually quite cathartic not to be the focus of attention on stage — unless it screws up, but then it’s the puppet’s fault!”

Puppetry’s recent resurgence seems to have recaptured the imagination of theatre-goers in a big way. Understanding why is another question altogether.

“I hope I never find out what it is,” says Jason. “That’s part of the mystery for me and what I love about it.

“When a puppet does something that a human does, we watch it in a different way. When you bring a puppet on stage, the audience is watching differently to how they watch a normal actor.

“Also you can do things with puppets you can’t do with people. You can rip their heads off and fly them round the room and then bring them back together — there’s that inherent kind of otherworldliness in it.”

  • Woyzeck on the Highveld, October 18-22, 7.45pm, Lyric Theatre

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