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View Article  Ronnie Burkett - Billy Twinkle, Requiem for a Golden Boy

Billy Twinkle – Requiem for a Golden Boy

Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes


Warwick Arts Centre Coventry– 25th April 2009



The first thing that struck me at Warwick Arts Centre last night was that I was sitting in the main theatre with a large crowd of people waiting to see a puppeteer, and yet as far as I could tell the large audience included very few puppeteers.  Ronnie Burkett has reached the point where he has a wide following and can command centre stage at major venues around the world with an artform that is all too often to be found on the fringes.  That is why is has come to be regarded as the ‘golden boy’. 


Requiem for a Golden Boy is a very personal piece of theatre. It is very much about Ronnie Burkett himself.  I suspect there are those who would have liked to have seen slightly less contemplation of self and a little more emphasis on up front puppetry.  I was not one of them. If a poet, a novelist, a songwriter or a painter is allowed to be self contemplating, why not a puppeteer?  This was a piece of theatre that was more than a ‘puppet show’. It was clearly meant to be all about the interplay between manipulator and puppet and it would be silly to see it as anything else. (That said if you just put together the pure puppetry bits you would have show that would leave almost any other puppet show on the planet in the shade). 


This was a non-stop solo performance of nearly two hours that filled a main stage with perhaps thirty puppets played at incredible pace.  Words like ‘tour de force’ and ‘virtuoso’ are entirely appropriate.  All of that in itself makes the show well worth seeing.  However for me there was something much more interesting than technical brilliance going on here.


As the golden boy looks back over his life so far Ronnie himself is very often the centre of attention not only as represented by marionettes of himself but also with himself as a performer in his own right. He exposes himself to a process of emotional dissection. This could be a bit superficial but Burkett’s brutal honesty takes it beyond that. It is challenging and at times hard to watch.  The real brilliance of the show was not the puppetry manipulation itself but the way the palpable energy of the show was bounced was bounced from puppet to puppet and from puppet to manipulator and back again in a continuous, incredibly skilled, and meaningful game of emotional ping pong.


Although often very funny – I wept with laughter at the Jesus puppet sequence - it is also disturbing and raw. The wit is often biting and brash. Despite this the show is also highly intelligent and thought provoking and although very personal touches on deep and universal themes and in particular the meaning of success. This is not just clever performance but clever writing and the overall dramatic structure is very carefully crafted to deliver overall integrity. We should also remember that Ronnie has crafted all of the wonderfully character-full marionettes that populate the piece.


The fast pace often verges on the manic which takes a bit of adjusting to, especially for restrained English audiences.  The language and the performance style were very ‘in your face’. However the most powerful moments were the quiet times when all the energy was with and between puppets as they paused with perfect timing for a few seconds of poignancy.  Perhaps such gentle times were all the more telling as a contrast to the rapid fire delivery of most of the show.


We often talk about cutting edge theatre and expanding the boundaries. This is a bold attempt to really explore possibilities of theatre involving puppets.  For me it succeeded.  The show finished with strong applause and several curtain calls.  I was more than happy to applaud a man with a very special, if idiosyncratic role, in the wide spectrum of puppetry who is prepared to do something dangerous.




View Article  His Dark Materials at Birmingham Rep

I recently went to see His Dark Materials (part two) at Birmingham Rep.  It really should be called His Dull Materials. This is not so much a production with ideas that failed as a production with no ideas at all.  I can't believe that an organisation of this size can take on a production like this without having some artistic vision of how to bring something so complex to the stage.  It barely rose above the level of the average school play. In fact, putting aside production values, I have seen many a school play that was better than this. At times it seemed to be simply embarrassingly bad. I presume the fault lies with the directors (I believe it was co-directed). It felt to me as if they were hopelessly out of their depth. I know this show is packing them in (off the back of a famous books) but I could see little merit in it.  Of course I went because of the puppetry, for which the very capable Blind Summit have been enlisted.  Here there was some good design and much potential, but in the context of the whole show I found that the puppetry quickly became surprisingly irritating.  The puppets looked about and walked about very nicely (although extremely repetitively) but they were not used to any significant effect; and when and where they were used seemed rather random.  The opportunity for a huge leap to somewhere much more exciting seemed to have been missed.  Good puppetry could have been the saving grace here, but I suspect the directors simply had no concept of the potential available to them and used the puppets in a fairly mundane and obvious manner.  The possible exception was the bears which did have some impact, but even this was lost as the whole production plodded along at the same pace with actors standing about talking lots of lines trying to cover an impossible amount of plot.  I felt sorry for the puppeteers and the actors.  Several members of the audiences left during the slow course of the evening. Most of us stuck it out for the whole tedious 3 hours.  Some people made the mistake of watching parts one and two on the same day.  The phrase 'gluttons for punishment' springs to mind.  I  guess that the sell out audience probably included a lot of fans of the books who think this kind of production is an acceptable substitute for real drama.  I wasn't one of them. 




View Article  Schools like prisons

Today I did what I do most days - went to a primary school to perform a puppet show.  There was however something different about what happened today.  For the first time ever (and I have been around for a few years) I was told that in order to gain entry to the school I not only had to show my enhanced CRB check but also back this up with my passport.  Clearly something is going very wrong here.  Firstly, as a performer I should not require CRB clearance at all.  I am not working unsupervised with children in a position of authority.  More importantly, where is this photo ID idea coming from?  I was told categorically by the receptionist and then the school administrator and then the head teacher that they were required to ask for both these as a matter of Birmingham Education Department policy and that it was a legal requirement for me to comply.  As it happened I did furnish my CRB check and show my driving license but I also challenged the fact that I was being asked for to do so.  I believe that it is neither a legal requirement nor a matter of department policy for someone in my position to provide these papers.  It is a mistaken interpretation of the relevant guidance,

I grow increasingly concerned at the way our schools which are after all public buildings are increasingly being turned into gated communities with entry systems that would be more appropriate for a high security prison.  It is not that uncommon to find high fences and razor wire surrounding primary schools. Even when you get inside you often discover that internal doors are subject to the same level of security including staff rooms.

I am aware of the serious issues of child safety and I remember Dunblain and Soham, but these extremely rare incidents seem to have led us to create learning environments that whilst they may be safe give out terrible messages to our children.  We seem to be telling them that the world is so evil that it needs to be locked out at all times.  Is this a good or accurate message?  The truth is that they are many times more vulnerable in their own homes and amongst there own families than they are to attack or abuse at school.  This is not of course an argument for doing nothing to keep schools safe but it is an argument against a silly over reaction that requires visitors to show advanced criminal records checks and passports.  There is further folly to be found in all this.  A CRB check is a point in time check.  The one that got me into this school today was actually several years old.  It does not show that I do not have a record but merely that I did not have a record at that point in time.  I could have notched up any number of crimes in the interim.  Beyond that of course they create a false sense of security because having a clear check only means that you have no convictions.  It does not prove that you are a good person.  You could be the devil himself and never have been caught.  Of course I suspect that is not really the point here.  The point is that if you did do something terrible the school would have covered its back in terms of being open to criticism.


I will continue to protest against requests for this stuff in inappropriate circumstances, but I will be as pragmatic as ever and keep my CRB check in my back pocket.


View Article  Off to Slovakia
I have just been invited to perform at a festival in Slovakia in September.  This is currently in the planning stages.  It will be in honour of my very good friend Anton Anderle who sadly died quite suddently last year.  Anton was an excellent performer of a wide range of marionette shows in his native Slovakia, and across Europe.  I was fortunate to have the opportunity to invite him to the England in 2005 and again in 2007 to tour with his Smallest Circus in The World as part of the Dynamics International Puppet Festival.  Anton was one of those performers who had the ability to carry forward traditional forms of puppetry, and his work was directly linked to what would be Victorian Times in England.  Yet there was never a sense that he was presented purely museum pieces.  Everything he did was vibrantly alive in the momment of performance and he had a magic ability to transfer performance energy down the strings and into the figures.  He was also a great collector and when I visited his house I was aslonished to be shown a room with a thousand beautifl puppets all hanging without a hand to move them.  I wouldn't presume to put myself on the same level as him, but I am proud to be asked to celebrate what his life with puppets meant by being part of a performance festival.
View Article  Change in the funding Climate.

We are all sick of hearing about the credit crunch.  I have been patting myself on the back and telling myself I am well buffered from its worst effects as so much of my work is in schools.  However I also do a lot of festival organising and there are a few things worth noting.  Firstly we have only just begun to see the cuts that will be coming in local authority spending.  I have been working with Walsall council promoting puppetry through their events programme for 20 years.  All of a sudden their entire Summer Programme looks to be dead in the water.  More Striking, their huge Walsall Illuminations which has been running for more than 50 years is also dead.  There was a time when I was involved in performing there for forty nights every Autumn.  On top of this those of use who are looking for funding from Arts Council England are finding them cranking up their expectations of required partnership funding to levels which even in good times are hard to achieve. And to make matters worse all the trust funds that we go to for this partnership money are finding their funds vanishing.  In simple terms trust funds give away the interest on their capital reserves.  In the current climate that interest is all but non existent.  Soon we will find ourselves with an Arts Council which has been stripped of cash to cover the Olympics which is not prepared to fund high percentages of projects at the same time as partnership money is simply not available due to council cuts and trust funds vanishing.  I wouldn't be the first to see this as the beginnings of a perfect storm - or as they say round here, its looking a bit black over Bill's mother's....


View Article  A storm of Puppets at RSC

I went to Stratford the other day to see the RSC production of The Tempest.  This show has a lot of puppets.  They add a splash of colour and scale.  This is Shakespeare meets the Lion King (itself based on Hamlet).  As a puppeteer it was great to see so many puppets being used, but I couldn't help feeling that they were mostly set dressing. There were lots of puppeteers listed in the programme, but I think this was a very loose defination based on being able to run about a lot with things on sticks. (What a shame that the RSC have forgotten what was achieved in Venus and Adonis through working with highly skilled professional 'puppeteers'). There were moments when it felt like there was going to be some powerful puppetry but these always to evaporate before they could be developed.  Some moments were just plain silly. The opening storm which was brought to life using a giant sea monster reminiscent of a Chinese dragon was a case in point.  It just didn't work because it wasn't really done with any conviction. Throughout it was as if nobody involved really believed in the power of the puppets. They make for absolutely stunning production photos, but that isn't quite enough.

In fact the whole production seemed to skip along on fairly superficial level.  On the surface it suggested profoundness but this seemed like much on the island to be founded on thin air.  I don't really buy the Colonial interpretation of The Tempest.  I know it often crops up in text books for school students and I can see why but I am not sure that the text really supports it if you look closely.  Caliban does have a prior claim to island - but only just.  It would be more accurate to say that all the characters are really strangers on a strange shore.  Nor does Caliban really qualify to assume the mantle of Mandela as this production suggests.  Caliban is actually the son of a witch and her union with the Devil.  He is a self confessed would be rapist of Miranda which he is why he is confined by Prospero. The parallel is not perfect. There are huge questions in The Tempest about power and the use and abuse of it and dressing it up neatly as a story of colonialism seems a bit too simple. 

The great Anthony Sher is hard to criticise but his performance here didn't really seem to mine the depths of Prospero's desperate situation.  That said, perhaps I am being a little harsh as it is worth remembering that it seems likely that The Tempest was originally performed as a court entertainment to celebrate a wedding.  Presenting it as a fairly lightweight spectacle in which big bright puppets play an important role might be perfectly in order. To this end Sher is a more than adequate master of ceromonies.

For me, as a comment on the dominance of a white ruling class over black minorities it misses its mark, for many reasons but not least because glancing at the RSC audience revealed no more than a couple of non white faces in the huge capacity crowd. There was something a little too comfortable about the whole context.   This was a collaboration with the a South African company and there were Black South Africans on stage, but the only South Africans in the audience were very definately white - which seemed, to this old cynic, to be more than a little ironic. 

This is a great show, with 'show' being the operative word.  If you are looking for profound and disturbing theatre, look elsewhere. In those terms this is less of a Tempest and more of a Storm in a Tea Cup. But the white middle class audience at the performance I attended were looking for a show that wasn't too challenging with a well known face in the lead role and that is exactly what the RSC gave them.