Suspense, London Puppetry Festival, Little Angel Theatre, London. 18 October 2013.
Cast and Creative Team
Puppeteers – Claire Harvey, Lori Hopkins, and Lowri James.
Director – Peter Glanville
Puppet Designer –Lyndie Wright
Lighting Designer –David Duffy
Costume designer –Keith Frederick
Composer –James Hesford
Set and Prop makers – Peter O´Rourke and Nele de Craecker
Set Construction –Simon Plumridge
Puppet makers –Lyndie Wright, Rebekah Wild, Jan Zalud, and Chloe Purcell
Stage Manager –Sarah Cowan.
Review by Isabel Guerrero (University of Murcia)
The Suspense London Puppetry Festival is a biennial puppetry event for adult audiences produced by Little Angel Theatre, a small venue in the heart of Islington exclusively devoted to puppets. There, Peter Glanville has presented his particular vision of Macbeth, featuring the characters not with human-like puppets, but with a variety of birds with some human characteristics (from cocks to pigeons). Glanville, director of the festival and of the venue where this production is held, has previously worked on Shakespeare, his most recent Shakespearean production previous to this Macbeth being The Tempest (2010), a co-production between Little Angel Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Using puppets implies a change from staging Macbeth with actors, as the emphasis of the play is necessarily on the visual world that puppets create. As Peter Glanville suggests, the purpose of this work is not to replicate the actions that real actors might perform when staging the play, but “exploring a visual language, a choreography, that could bring the story to life.” This revision of Shakespeare’s tragedy poses a challenge: telling Macbeth’s bloody story through a medium that belongs to the realm of children’s story-telling.
The selection of birds is not casual at all: the different types of birds help to enhance some aspects of the characters’ personality as they create associations between bird and character. The main characters are human-like cocks–Banquo, Macbeth and Macduff–, and their wives hens–Lady Macduff is a houswife hen taking dear care of her chickens and Lady Macbeth is a slender one who has no chickens to look after–; Duncan and his children are all swans to reinforce their royal condition; the murderers are ravens that can easily assassinate Banquo with their beaks. The English army is composed of falcons; and the servant informing Lady Macbeth of the coming of her husband and the king in the first act is a homing pigeon. Imagination is set free when it comes to the three witches: they are phantom-like crowns with evil eyes; Hecate is similar to them, the main difference being her head: a raven skull which differentiates her from the other witches. The play starts with the three witches symbolizing the Fates, as they take strings from a mountain of wool with their beaks. This beginning, with one puppeteer manipulating each of the witches, gives rise to the association between puppeteers and witches: the puppeteers are similar to the weird sisters because they also manipulate the action of the play. Far from being a show for children, this production portrays the violence of the play through images such as those of the different murders.
Apart from the connotations that the use of different birds may have, the election has, to some extent, a textual base: the references to birds in the text are used to define some of the characters. Such is the case, for instance, of Macduff and his family, as his comparison to a dam and chickens when he learns about the assassination of his family in IV.iii turns from metaphor into reality because his wife and children are a dam and chickens respectively. The assimilation of the characters within the animal kingdom suddenly confers a new meaning to the references to birds in the play: it is now easier for Lady Macbeth to confound Macbeth’s voice with the owl screaming (“Lady Macbeth.– I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry.” II.ii, 15) after the murder of the king.
The variety of birds is also translated into a diversity of puppets. The main characters belong to the type known as ‘bunraku puppets’, the pigeon and raven are stick puppets and the swans are object puppets (they are plush toys manipulated to bring them to life). All this variety, together with the constant presence of the puppeteers dressed in black clothes to go unnoticed, proves the quality of the production, based on the expertise in puppetry-making and in their manipulation, which creates a unique atmosphere for a Macbeth in the animal or, rather, bird kingdom. Instead of being the own puppeteers who provide the voice for the characters, they are recorded and perfectly synchronized with the action. The only drawback of this technique being that in certain occasions it makes it difficult to discern soliloquies from dialogue.
Regarding the adaptation, it follows a common pattern within Macbeth’s production history. The first act is performed almost completely, and the following ones are heavily cut, preserving the main points of the action together with the most famous monologues. There are no porter and no conversation between Lady Macduff and her son; the effect of Ross’s words telling Macduff that his wife and children are well and then, a bit later, reveal to him that his whole family has been murdered is also lost. The production relies perhaps too much on monologues, slowing down the action until the Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. This attention to monologues in the adaptation shows a Macbeth that is heavily psychological: as much as the action is still important, the thoughts of the characters become central.
One of the wonders of puppet theatre is, no doubt, the set, and this is one of the strong points of this production: a set of multifunctional platforms that serves as Macbeth’s castle as well as magic cauldron from where the three apparitions emerge. This structure has especial relevance in the last act, after the messenger announces to Macbeth that Birnam Wood is moving. From this moment, the production reaches epic dimensions. To stage the ending, the puppeteers divide the set in two halves and put it to the sides, discovering the back part of the stage to the audience, all this to the rhythm of beating drums. Hidden behind the set are stick puppets of falcons attached to wooden trees that the puppeteers move to the front of the stage, leaving Macbeth surrounded by the bird-like English army. The bird features of the characters have special importance in the last moments of the production; instead of fighting with their swords, the final duel between Macbeth and Macduff is transformed into a cockfight. To do so, the bunraku puppets are substituted by stick puppets of cocks which do not have human features any longer. While the cocks fight, feathers fly and the birds cluck until Macbeth’s death. The relentless pace of the last ten minutes leaves the audience astonished while the young swan, Malcolm, recites the final speech.
This Macbeth, full of feathers and clucking, adds a double dimension of fantasy to the Shakespearean play: first, the audience is invited to believe, as children do with cartoons, that animals can behave like humans; second, the public can learn that ‘toys’ can tell stories not only for children, but also for an adult audience fully aware of the cruelty of the Shakespearean text. At the end of the production, the audience is left with the feeling that the challenge to match Shakespeare’s lines with the strong visual language of puppet theatre has been fulfilled.
Glanville, Peter 2013. “Macbeth behind the scenes with Peter Glanville”. Little Angel Theatre Website. <http://www.littleangeltheatre.com/whats-on/macbeth-3/> Last accessed 16/10/2013.
Shakespeare, Williams 2005 (1623) “Macbeth.” Ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. The Oxford Shakespeare. The Complete Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 969-993.
 They are inspired in ancient Japanese puppetry known as ‘bunraku’. These puppets allow the movement of head and extremities, giving a feeling of reality because they can imitate human motion. They need to be managed by one to three puppeteers depending on the movement to be done.