It’s been a whirlwind week of theatre and puppetry in Cape Town. My first experience of the annual Out The Box festival has been an inspiring one, if challenging given how many performances there have been to see in such a limited time. With the final weekend of world class puppetry still ahead, I’m going to take this opportunity to reflect on the week that has been.
On speaking to various people during the opening day I recognised the very mixed perceptions held with regards to puppetry. Even among performers and puppeteers there appears to be no consensus or unifying voice. Both festival director Yvette Hardie and Basil Jones of the world famous Handspring Puppet Company echoed this sentiment as they addressed the “Opening of the Box” showcase, describing the festival as a platform for diversity and re-invention in theatre. An exciting invitation.
My first half-a-dozen or so shows helped me discern some of the fluid divisions between the general forms of puppetry theatre on offer. What I would consider solely puppet-driven productions included most notably Ouroboros, Anubis and Sadako. My pick of the festival so far – Anubis – saw puppeteer Uta Gerbert masterfully control a grim-reaper styled puppet. So engrossing were the minimalist visuals and soundscapes that I felt projected into an under-world aesthetic reminiscent of a Faithless music video.
Most exciting were the productions which straddled multiple theatre formats. The Door by Grahamstown-based physical theatre company Ubom! was a multimedia feast of visuals which saw mobile doors dance across the stage as a reinterpretation of conventional puppets accompanied by live visuals on an overhead projector.
Similarly, Ways of Exposure’s trio of actors resembled a hybrid between humans and puppets with their frenetic jumping and falling. Theirs was also an example of a smooth marriage between conventional dialogue acting and puppetry. In some productions unfortunately, this mix ‘n’ match format became a mere juxtaposing of mediums which stalled rather than contributed to a coherent narrative. I concurred with a fellow festival goer who validly complained that some productions were overly long. This was often the result of too much experimentation or stumbling over one aspect, most often puppetry, to the detriment of the story.
A large selection of children’s theatre sometimes provided a light interlude between the heavier content-driven shows. Observing the children’s restlessness was the most reliable barometer for analysis here. While watching ‘La Plaza’, a group of boys sitting in the aisle delivered a running commentary to the amusement of the audience. Mime/clown trio Ubla Dubla Trubla and Strings of Music from Greece were two of the few shows which held the attention of both young and old throughout.
With a quarter of the festival to go I have been highly impressed with the delivery on the original promise of innovative re-invention. Having endured some of the less successful shows I also feel I have a new perspective of the challenge posed by the craft of puppetry. Most of all, I applaud the organisers for bringing together such diverse theatre forms and boldly allowing them a platform to communicate. I am looking forward to next year already.
The Out the Box Festival runs at various venues in the city bowl until 11 September.