A day when I saw a puppet show in my hotel drawing room – my first amazed awakening to the fact of theatre. 

Martha Graham 

War Horse.
Photo by Simon Annand

I was reminded on Friday evening, when I saw the National’s magical production of War Horse for the third time, that some of the best, most moving performances I have seen over the years have been given by puppets: splendid representations of the human spirit. I am thinking of the Bunraku puppets of Japan, Lotte Reiniger’s first silhouette film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, and, dare I mention, Toy Story 3 which, I understand, made adults weep. Two particular memories I have were the inspiration behind the shadow puppets that featured in my production of The Bacchae for the Actors’ Company. 

On holiday in Greece in 1974, I saw a shadow theatre play one night in the open air and was taken backstage to watch from behind. It was my first visit to Greece and a last-minute package tour got me to a little village called Kamena Vourla, with a single mini-highrise hotel by the beach. It was by chance I walked into the village one night and noticed a show beginning. I sat on a bench under a small pergola facing a rough stone-built ‘shed’, which housed a shadow screen, maybe four feet wide. The puppets were almost Javanese in appearance and the story that of a battle between the Turks and Greeks. I remember the Greek hero being killed and a laurel wreath floating down from the sky to rest on his head and all the while a rasping voice through a microphone, out-Heroding Herod, played the entire cast of characters and provided the narration.

Karagiozis, the main protagonist
of Greek shadow theatre

I don’t recall how I got backstage; perhaps I peeped through the open door in the back of the shed and was welcomed in by the puppeteer’s momentarily spare hand. He had two boy helpers, no more than twelve years of age, whom he seemed to curse and order about sotto voce, averting his mouth from the mike to whisper urgent instructions about music cues; there was a little electric turntable and a handful of records. The puppets themselves were hinged so that they could turn one way or the other: they could be taken away from the screen, flicked and pressed back, having miraculously changed the direction of their attention. The boys were very busy and even handled the minor characters and somehow, throughout the melodramatic diatribes, the coherence of the drama was sustained against the intense atmosphere of impending theatrical disaster.

* * *

Lotte Reiniger’s Prince Achmed (the first animated feature film) had captivated me when I saw the film in a cinema in London. There is a moment when the young prince sees some winged water nymphs descend to bathe in a little lake and he hides to watch them, pulling a palm branch down, in profile, to conceal himself. Lotte had a ‘trick table’ on which all the scenes and puppets were arranged, tiny move by tiny move, to build up the action, each part of the whole film’s sequence was photographed, tiny action by action, by her husband Karl on a camera fixed above the table. As Achmed watches, I remember, there is a close-up of him and his lips part in wonder at the nymphs’ beauty. It struck me as a perfect, human piece of acting, such a simple, elemental gesture.

Lotte Reiniger

The following film tribute to the poetry of puppets contains footage from my 1989 one-man show 7001 Nights, including an attempt by me to act the part of Edward Gordon Craig’s idea of his über-marionette which he never built; it remained part theory and part dream to supersede the limitations of the human actor. I fear I am too busy acting the presence of strings so that I supersede nothing! (Incidentally, Gerry Anderson, inventor of the Supermarionation filming technique and producer of the 1960s cult classic Thunderbirds, was yet another distinguished resident of West Hampstead.)

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