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The Table
Published on Saturday, 13 August 2011

4 stars

Pleasance Dome (venue website)
3-14, 16-28 Aug, 10:00pm-11:00pm
Reviewed by Carmel Doohan

 Recommended for age 12+ only.

A little man, made from rags and cardboard, is standing on a table top with three puppeteers behind him. One controls his head and right arm, one his torso and left arm, and one his feet. In Bunraku – a 16th century Japanese puppetry – the puppeteers are visible throughout, making it feel like a strangely modern kind of theatre.

The men work calmly as they build life with faultless precision. They are somehow able to create the illusion of spontaneity, despite their every move and the corresponding flicker of marionette muscle being choreographed minutely.

The fact nothing is hidden is what makes it so impossible to look away; even as we are shown exactly how the illusion is produced, the man himself giving us a lecture on the art of puppetry, the magic refuses to fade.  The experience insists there is something happening here that is more than the sum of its parts.

This sense grows when a real woman enters. She cannot hear or see the puppet and his men, but as she sits reading a book, there is a feeling that there is something wrong with her. It is as if what it is to be alive has been turned on its head and it is she, without her mechanisms visible for all to see, who seems empty. Can there be better proof of a puppet’s success than for a human being to lack authenticity beside it?

Suddenly the woman responds, and they dance a slow-motion operatic battle as the table lifts and spins. This is powerfully moving. Emotion seems to be spilling out everywhere but I cannot tell which vessel it belongs to; puppet or human.

When the lights went down, I thought it was all over: a short but utterly glorious show. However, two more acts were still to come. An impressive ballet of severed heads followed, beautifully lit masks floating through picture frames to the sound of classical music. While remarkably original, this smacked slightly of the pink elephants in Disney's Dumbo; unnervingly trippy and a little too long.

For the finale, paper sketches were pulled from a suitcase to the music of Elgar, forming a pastiche storyboard for a French art-house film. While this was, in effect, a clichéd joke about clichés, it was performed with such timing and style that it felt fresh. The only problem was that after being made to question what it means to exist by cardboard and rag, a riff on the semiotics of French cinema felt rather unnecessary. Watching a puppet breathe while he showed me how the effect was achieved, then finding myself still unable to suspend my belief, was wonder enough for one show.

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