“Puppetry theatre”, I thought, “that could be interesting”. With productions like War Horse and Complicite’s The Master and Margarita showing off serious puppet skills, the art has received considerable attention over the past years and has become a fashionable asset in many shows. With Innocence and Experience, Indomitable Productions promises “an emotional and honest piece of puppetry theatre”, and “a brief but powerful look into the lives of a couple unable to conceive and their journey through the adoption process”.
It is vital to have read the leaflet before seeing the show – I hadn’t – as you are left guessing what it is about. Four performers (one singing selections from Vaughan Williams’s Ten Blake Songs, and one playing the oboe as accompaniment) handle a faceless puppet whose childlike laughter is at one point so ridiculously voiced by one of the ensemble you would think it’s comedy you’re watching. But it’s meant to be quite the opposite: the slow, uninspiring choreography interspersed by the eerie music (barely audible words, albeit well-sung) ought to be a deeply emotional experience – a story of the highs and lows of the adoption process.
Perhaps it all went over my head and I simply failed to see the beauty through the highly stylised and cerebral staging, but I felt it is almost like a caricature of modern performance. The fact that nothing whatsoever has been done to give the show any production value (even the standard black outfits are ill-matched, and it does look as if everyone is just wearing what they’ve thrown on that morning) doesn’t help, either: it feels like a rehearsal, not a finished product.
The visual language deployed by the young company is not very strong (yet): there is a lot of sighing, holding hands and mimicking each other’s poses but none of it to any identifiable end. It fails to draw the audience in or to suggest the world of the story in any convincing manner. It is especially the slowness of it all that makes it look off-balance and unconfident – the supposition that this automatically produces an elevated and profound effect is false.
The role of the puppet is too subordinate to justify selling the show as puppetry theatre, and if you need a written explanation of what is going on, there’s simply quite a lot of work to be done. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s a feat to make 45 minutes feel like a long time – this show did it.
Innocence and Experience played at the Waterloo East Theatre on 11-12 September. For more information, see the Waterloo East Theatre website.