The Blue Elephant is a small theatre with big ambitions, and with shows as engaging and daring as The Fantasist by Theatre Temoin and Compagnie Traversiere, it should have no trouble achieving its goals. Three actor/puppeteers take the Camberwell audience on a dark and twisted journey through the troubled mind of an artist struggling with bipolar disorder, with plenty of wit and imagination to maintain captivation from start to finish.
The artist in question is a woman called Louise, played by Julia Yevnine, a graduate of LIPA and l’Ecole Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq – an impressive physical training background that definitely shows through in her performance style. The company worked closely with Walthamstow NHS and North East London NHS Foundation Trust to explore the nature of this illness, and the extent of the research truly shows. The subject is tackled with tact, creativity and understanding, and rarely does this piece descend into stereotypes of madness – Louise seems to find her fantasies as compelling as they are dangerous. Sometimes they are almost sweet, like an imaginary butterfly cleverly fashioned from masking tape; other times seductive, like the tall stranger in the blue coat Louise longs to find. It is only as the piece continues that these figments of her mind become more sinister.
This tall blue stranger obsesses Louise, and the play follows her quest to find him. She feels that his presence will relieve the creative block that is preventing her from working, but he appears to overwhelm as much as he inspires. Meanwhile, her nurse, and a friend who visits Louise must deal with the outward manifestations of this obsession. The “minor” characters of this play are key to building a realistic world for Louise and the dialogue is snappy and completely believable.
What is most exciting about this show is the different techniques used to create the world inside Louise’s mind. Puppetry is used in a variety of different ways, including manipulation of everyday objects, two hilarious lip-sync Muppet-style heads and some slickly-operated rod puppets. Katerina Damvoglou and Julia Yevnine have done a fantastic job of making some wonderfully caricatured puppet characters and prove that you don’t need big budgets or animatronics to create inspiring and effective puppets. It was pleasing to see a successful combination of both object work and puppets, as there seems to be an influx on the scene at the moment of some rather repetitive object animation shows. The Fantasist has the edge in this sense as it manages to incorporate the magic of puppetry into the piece in so many different ways.
Director Ailin Conant has worked some rather brilliant moments of choreography, scenes where dialogue overlaps, and clever switches of light and sound enhance the action on stage. At one point Louise’s shadow falls across the back of the stage, elongated by a lamp on the floor in front of her: it speaks volumes about the inventiveness of this show that for a minute I expected it to detach itself from the actor and run around the theatre all on its own.
Julia Yevnine does a great job, playing Louise and keeping up the manic energy, never leaving the stage. Working around her Julia Correa and Cat Gerrard are tasked with playing every human she meets, and animating all the puppets, which they do with professional class. The Fantasist is magnificent, and the characters created so vivid that they provide a distinctive light in the darkness.
The Fantasist is playing at the Blue Elephant Theatre until 17 March. For more information and tickets, see the Blue Elephant Theatre’s website. Photography by Dougie Firth.