Emily Davis pays a visit to the Puppet Theatre Barge to see Howard Barker's marionette production, All He Fears.
Full disclosure: ever since I was little I have been irrationally terrified of puppets.
However, with the Puppet Theatre Barge leaving its usual mooring in Little Venice and taking a trip down the river to Richmond, I decided the opportunity to see a quirky adult puppet show on the Thames was too good to miss: it was time to face my fears.
Once aboard the barge, owner Juliet Middleton tells me how excited they all are to be putting on Howard Barker’s play All He Fears, which he wrote exclusively for the Puppet Barge in 1993.
‘Howard’s been here this week actually’ she reveals. ‘He’s very hard to impress. He can come off as quite… spiky! Luckily he is pleased with how our production turned out!’
I decide that this is a good time to confide in Juliet about my puppet phobia. ‘Oh dear!’ she smiles, ‘Perhaps you should have come to one of our children’s plays!’
I think Juliet could have a point. Long known for the bleakness and intensity of his work, Barker refers to his own productions as ‘The Theatre of Carnage’. Last year Barker’s Scenes from an Execution was performed at the National Theatre. As the name suggests, it wasn't a bundle of laughs.
The ship’s bell rings and we are ushered from the reception into the theatre, where we are soon sucked into the world of Botius, a philosopher of circumstances who brings about his own downfall by thinking too much.
Barker’s sense of cynicism and pathos are as usual, razor sharp. Botius himself seems to be the most unfortunate man in the world, with all the things that terrify him the most unravelling around him in a clinically cold trail of events. Yet rather than be overwhelmed by tragedy, the audience is rapt, because it turns out that the play borders on hilarious. Barker throws at his puppet all horrors imaginable; our response is to giggle a little self-consciously at poor Botius, and then feel guilty for laughing in the first place. How are we all having our emotions toyed with so effectively by a puppet? This really must be black comedy at its darkest.
After the show, I’m lucky enough to be taken backstage by director Rob Humphreys, and we crawl into the tiny space between the miniature stage and the projector. Above us, puppeteer Stan Middleton is hunched up in a ball, working the strings with an easy dexterity and sweating slightly under the heat of the lights.
As Stan makes Botius waggle towards me, something very strange starts to happen – I can’t look at the puppet without wanting to cry. Rationally I know it’s just a puppet, but having seen Botius’s decline to desolate insanity played out just ten minutes ago, I’m beginning to relate to him like a real person.
‘It’s an odd phenomenon’ explains Rob when I tell him. ‘The marionette has no ego; it’s really just an object. Yet people project so much of their own emotions into them that they really do become alive. Look - we carve them to have a completely neutral expression. Yet as you watch a puppet on stage you would never say it has no expression – it has whatever expression you imagine it to have.’
This is definitely true. Even as I look at Botius’s face now I’m slightly shocked to see that yes, it really is a blank canvas after all. For in the last hour I'm certain I saw him cry, laugh and scream.
Rob lets me have an even closer look at Botius, and explains why he’s a more complex puppet than the rest.
‘He has two trick strings – one for when his eyes need to fall out and another for when we blow his brains out. Have a look [obligingly I peer inside Botius’s tiny hollowed out skull]; every time we do a performance we have to refill it with guts and gore!’
On my way home I decide it’s time to re-evaluate my relationship with puppets. Yes, they can be creepy, especially when they are dressed in long black cloaks, have no eyes and strongly resemble Jigsaw from Saw. However, they are also uniquely captivating and creative. So while perhaps my fear of puppets is now no longer irrational, I also won’t be passing up on an opportunity to see a puppet show ever again.
But maybe next time I’ll take Juliet’s advice and opt for The Three Little Pigs.
The Puppet Theatre Barge will be moored by Richmond Bridge throughout September. All He Fears is showing every weekend. Visit puppetbarge.com to book your tickets.