Spirit at the Puppet Theatre Barge
In the south-west suburban town of Richmond, nestled along the banks of the meandering Thames, is a very special place. In the summer months, an old Thames lighter is moored. Here it rocks ever so slightly with the passing of water traffic in the gentle tide. And, inside, a transformation has taken place. Amongst walls painted maroon and covered with pipes and valves hang old-fashioned marionettes – horses, geishas, warriors. Welcome to the Puppet Theatre Barge.
Old boat smell fills the theatre. The audience sits upon pews awaiting Spirit, an adult-oriented puppet show developed from an original idea by Susan Beattie. The piece was constructed from interviews conducted in 2001. The only stipulation was that “interviewees should have no religious affiliation, but would be prepared to talk about the meaning of life, living and ultimately dying”.
Verbatim theatre dispels fiction in favour of exploring a truer representation of human voice. Using tape-recorded testimony from unseen individuals, Spirit cuts and reweaves voices to form a captivating non-linear narrative on life and death. Under Kate Middleton’s direction, the two forms of theatre – verbatim and puppetry – hybridise to suspend the audience in a semi-dream space that lasts over an hour, a sensory rumination on our place in the world. What does it mean to be spiritual? What does it mean to have a spirit? To be imbued with, formed from, an intangible essence. Do all creatures have a spirit – and, as some cultures believe, is this also true of the trees, the fruits, the rocks and sea?
Spirit explores these questions with touching grace and humour. No one voice dominates; rather, Beattie’s delicate interspersing of audio balances disparate views. A carefully constructed range of beliefs intertwine to form a discursive vision of humanity, while, visually, sequences are represented on stage by felt puppets (handled by Emily Dyble, Stan Middleton and Jim Osman) and marionettes (by Beattie herself). The puppeteers’ mastery will move you to tears as you behold a solitary, crinkled cellophane spirit rise, twist, dance and fall – a life passing through all known stages before ebbing away.
As we grow older, it’s easy to lose the sense of mysticism that surrounds childhood. Cramming onto the Tube with a hundred other bodies, one might question the existence of a spirit as a way to assuage our minds – for what crushing weight must the daily hardships of life place on the human spirit? Yet we all believe in something beyond ourselves, an idea, a feeling. Just what it is, we can’t say. But we can try. Spirit is an intensely honest, humane and articulate exploration of life and death; a breathtakingly original show in the perfect medium, in the perfect setting. A must-see this summer.
Photo: Courtesy of Puppet Theatre Barge
Spirit is at the Puppet Theatre Barge from 30th August until 5th October 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.