Sunday 10 December 2017

Kneehigh Production of The Tin Drum

One of my first jobs was as the manager at the Puppet Centre Trust, an organization dedicated to promoting the art of puppetry in the UK. Some of the most impactful theatre shows I have seen utilized puppets. I love the way puppets can introduce magic into the real.

Kneehigh is a theatre company which has taken puppetry to the heart of its work and delivers magic realism in the theatre. As their website says they "love to create magic with partners, collaborators, co-producers and audiences across the world." Having last year mounted a production of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's short story A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings Kneehigh have now turned their attention to Gunter Grass' magic-realist masterpiece The Tin Drum. As with A Very Old Man Kneehigh have joined forces with British puppetry royalty the Wright family and the Little Angel Marionette Theatre.

The show has been touring Britain and has received rave reviews in regional and national media. I saw the show at Shoreditch Town Hall in London. The show is a rumbustious, loud, funny/dark, affair full of music and song, knockabout and great puppetry.

Inevitably translating a long complex book into a theatre show means that some things are lost. Choices have to be made. The main choice was to make the play musical/operatic. The second choice was to replace the second world war setting with a more ambiguous one - the play starts with the statement Once upon a war, which war doesn't really matter. The second choice is particularly relevant given recent events and makes one ponder how easily very ordinary men, like Oskar's father, can become drawn into supporting fascism. 

The puppet Oskar is just wonderful. Beautifully designed, his body is finely balanced making his movement natural. His slightly alien face can be read in many ways - childish, naive and yet judging the adult world that he chooses not to join. He has a solemn air and brings the necessary serious counterbalance to the slapstick fun generated by the actors. I wanted more of him. When Oskar is centre stage, as when his drum undermines the beat of a fascist rally, he takes the drama to another level. But he isn't at the centre nearly enough. In the novel he is the narrator; the book's point of view is his point of view, although we cannot be certain of the veracity of his account, which starts with the words Granted I am the inmate of a mental institution... The contrast in the choice of opening lines in the play and the book is a revealing one. At the end of the play the boy/puppet Oskar is replaced by the man/actor Oskar without explanation. And when the performers assembled to take a bow the puppet was absent. To my mind he really should have been there.