The Polish theatre director Tadeusz Kantor first came to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival back in the early nineties with The Dead Class, a piece fuelled by his stylistic design to create work that emulated paintings, the dead, autobiographical work and the lingering figure of a director at play with his actors. It was a piece that would ripple around Europe, feeding into some of the best and most innovative directors of today. Since then, Kantor’s work has lived on through various disciples of his work, and in Polish theatre you can still see his influences framed like paintings being sketched and etched over and over again. In terms of neTTheatre, their piece Puppet. Book of Splendor once again dives into the Kantor world and extracts the haunting images that once were conjured in his work. This is a piece that pays homage to Kantor and attempts to bring the notion of his work to audiences of today.
We are told, through a booming voice over a PA system, that this piece is and isn’t a work inspired by Kantor. It is a piece that is and isn’t enriched with his ideas and visuals. It is a piece about The Book of Jobe, whilst seemingly being a tale of an artist caught in the pains of his work, tormented, celebrated and torn down. Where the devil stalks in the darkness and everything is not what it is. As a piece, it is a visual spectacle that oozes – caresses even – the audience before stabbing them repeatedly in the back. It is a bold piece and one that should not be seen with lightness in the heart. Packed full of visual images and religious connotations, neTTheatre bring an astounding and episodic look into Kantor as if he were present today.
There are hundreds of instances of Kantor’s influences throughout Puppet. Book of Splendor. The artist who paints with vigour, the girl behind the painting who haunts repeatedly the stage, and the figures who emerge their fingers extended as if answering a question – these are all seen in Kantor’s work. The difference, though, is neTTheatre has brought these influences into a modern context. The production includes live mixing of sound, as three vocalists dressed in white wigs and appearing in a singing booth harmonise, before suddenly, and quite chillingly, having their voices spilt electronically and distorted. There are projections and films that dominant the stage space, offering connections and images overlaid on the performers and set.
At times the piece becomes confusing and the narrative, what little there is, becomes increasingly distorted. But it is the visual spectacle, coupled with the sound and video work, that really gets the heart pumping. A particular moment where the artist becomes a Jesus-like figure climbing a mountain, with distorted vocals, repeated gestures from performers and a Polish text delivered sent goosebumps through me. I can’t pinpoint what it was within this, but something affected me and I didn’t want to let go of this feeling. A spectacle – in many ways a masterpiece – with layer after layer built upon Kantor’s ideas and neTTheatre’s own creative flare. It won’t be for everyone, but those willing to engage with something built upon non-linear narrative and visual scenes and beauty will certainly revel in it. There is something distinctly human about it, which makes it even more connected to its audience, stirring the senses.
**** – 4 Stars
Puppet. Book of Splendor is playing at Summerhall until 13 August as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.