Czeching out the wonders of puppet theatre

Puppet theatre is neither old-fashioned nor just for children, as Mark Brown discovered at a recent showcase in the Czech Republic

Everyone loves puppets. Whether it is childhood memories of that politically incorrect British seaside institution Punch and Judy, or reminiscences of Jim Henson’s far more ideologically sound Sesame Street, puppets evoke a strong emotional response.

The spectacular, much-loved puppets in the National Theatre (of Great Britain’s) excellent stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel War Horse, have set a new benchmark for British puppetry.

Puppets, like the animated cinematic and televisual characters that came after them, can do and say things that are more outlandish than any mere human can achieve. Perhaps this is why, even in the nations of the UK (where the traditions of puppet theatre are not especially) strong, there remains a strong attachment to these most beguiling of stage creations.

For all of this affection for puppets, however, the fact remains that puppet theatre is largely marginal in the theatre cultures of Scotland and the other nations of the UK. The fact that the keepers of the flame of Scotland’s puppet theatre heritage (the Scottish Mask and Puppet Centre) run a limited programme from an unprepossessing building tucked away in a corner of the West End of Glasgow (a much-needed redevelopment is planned) tells its own story.

Elsewhere in the world, however, from the globally famous shadow puppetry of China and India to the revered puppet traditions of central and eastern Europe, puppetry is a far more serious, and celebrated, affair. Nowhere is that more true than in the Czech Republic, where puppet theatre remains very much a part of the national culture.

Little wonder, then, that the recent HI PerformanCZ showcase of Czech theatre should have been comprised primarily of puppetry. Hosted by the Czech national conservatoire (the country’s Arts and Theatre Institute) and the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic, the programme offered international guests, ranging from theatre directors to humble critics, the opportunity to sample the delights of contemporary Czech puppetry.

The showcase coincided with Prague’s somewhat cumbersomely named One Flew Over the Puppeteer’s Nest Festival (one can only assume the title sounds more charming in Czech). However, it also comprised visits to puppet museums and puppet and children’s theatres in the cities of Pilsen and Hradec Kralove, and the beautiful little town of Chrudim, in eastern Bohemia.

The puppet museum in Pilsen (which one could combine with a visit to Europe’s second biggest synagogue, truly an architectural wonder) is an educational delight which displays a wonderful variety of historical Czech puppets. The Chrudim museum has an even more impressive collection, telling, as it does, the stories, not only of the golden years of Czech puppetry in the 19th century (when the Czech lands were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), but also of other great puppet theatre traditions around the world.

Back in Prague, the beautiful, little show Zuna was a highlight of the puppet festival. The piece combines lovely, traditional puppets with live music and a story that is both folkloric and modern (the heroine, a young girl called Zuna, undoes a Faustian pact in order to be reunited with her beloved mother).

By turns humorous and touching, the play tells the story of a woman who, despairing of her childlessness, conceives a child with the assistance of a seemingly benevolent, old witch. In a lovely example of modern folklore resetting the gender assumptions of such stories, it features a comically gossipy and foolish gaggle of townsmen, whose inquisitiveness as to the woman’s sudden pregnancy leads them into wonderfully gruesome, supernatural trouble.

To Scottish eyes, the show is remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, its primary artist, talented author and performer Natalia Vanova, is a young theatremaker who has, in recent times, chosen to learn the techniques of puppetry.

Secondly, the work is produced by Continuo Theatre, an acclaimed Czech company known, first-and-foremost, for its street shows, of which puppet theatre is merely a strand. That Vanova and Continuo should alight together upon this new-yet-traditional puppet play is an indication of just how prevalent the art form is within Czech theatrical culture.

The festival gave a tremendous sense of the diversity of Czech puppetry. The Smallest of the Sami (by the Czechoslovakian Sticks company) tells a story of survival in the arctic north by means of the tiniest of tabletop figures. Both humorous and surprisingly engaging, it is part of an intriguing, increasingly prominent miniaturist strand in global puppetry.

The Bartered Bride (by Puppet Theatre Ostrava) recreates Smetana’s famous comic opera as a work of musical puppet theatre for families. Played metatheatrically in a theatre-within-a-theatre (at Prague’s wonderful children’s playhouse, Divadlo Minor), it is a gloriously colourful coming together of puppets and performers.

One might add to these a delightful telling of Oscar Wilde’s children’s story The Happy Prince (by Lampion Theatre) and DRAK Theatre’s Oddball (a clever and carefully considered interplanetary piece about autism).

Should, in the years to come, young Scottish theatremakers wish to take a turn towards puppetry, the Czech Republic would be a good place to start.