First published on 25 Oct 2012. Updated on 2 Nov 2012.
For those who think all puppets are cute, furry and just for kids, consider the colourful characters of Blind Summit. This company did for puppetry what The Simpsons
did for cartoons – added wit, charm and adult situations. Whether they’re marshalling the giant Voldemort, Captain Hook and Cruella De Vil through the Olympic Stadium or manouevering cardboard-headed wise-crackers around fringe theatres, Blind Summit offers a radical new look at the art form you grew up with; and they’re coming to Shanghai this month courtesy of UK Now.
Blind Summit founder and former child actor Nick Barnes was studying theatre design when he discovered that puppetry allowed him to not only build and create, but also perform. ‘For me,’ says Barnes, ‘a puppet is the perfect combination of art, craft and theatre.’ After a 1997 backpacking trip through China, he crafted puppets to tell the anguished story of Yunnan café owner and former enemy of the state He Liyi. Mr. China’s Son
was a powerful debut, establishing not only the company’s now-signature puppetry style, but also a fertile partnership with Blind Summit’s current co-artistic director Mark Down.
For his part, Down was an enthusiastic amateur dramatist, but chose to follow the family medical tradition. While still a junior doctor in London he broke his back on holiday and did some deep thinking. ‘I decided I really wanted to make theatre, but had no idea how to go about doing it,’ he says. He was drawn to puppetry; at the same time, Barnes needed a director, and Blind Summit was born. ‘The name comes from the signs on the road to the Edinburgh Fringe,’ says Barnes. ‘It’s a hill where you can’t see the top until you are on it, and then everything is clear,’ he continues. ‘It seemed like a good metaphor for the creative process.’
Before the 2012 Olympics, Blind Summit collaborated with film director Anthony Minghella for his Madame Butterfly
at English National Opera and New York’s Met, where at least one reviewer felt the puppets were the ‘most authentic characters on stage’. This proved that puppetry was a viable, marketable art form and allowed the company to hone its technique in bunraku
– traditional Japanese puppetry with visible puppeteers, as well as some Blind Summit personal touches. ‘I don’t like marionettes, because you are at the whim of gravity,’ says Barnes. ‘I love the control you can get with bunraku
, the size and detail of the puppets, and that the performer can hold the puppet directly. In the last four years, we have developed a style that allows us to direct the puppets almost as if they were actors or dancers.’
The effect is startling. Consider The Table, which chronicles the last 12 hours of Moses’ life. ‘Moses was stuck in the wilderness for 40 years, so we thought the metaphor of a puppet stuck on a table would be interesting,’ says Barnes. ‘The death of Moses in the Bible and in Jewish Midrash and Caballah [is] an existential examination of life and the mystery of death. There is a clear separation between God and Man, which [is] a rich idea for puppetry where you can see the puppeteers,’ he continues. ‘And we wanted to see if we could do a show which was just a puppet on a table.’
Voiced by Down, manipulated by Down (head and left hand), Barnes (feet) and performer Sean Garrat (right hand and bum), Moses has a cardboard, character-driven face with a strong personality and occasionally lewd sense of humour. He interacts with audiences, criticises his handlers, explains his reality and confesses that he was descended from a long line of boxes. He is funny, sharp and completely engaging, so much so that you’ll forget his handlers entirely – until he tells you not to. The second, unrelated section is ‘French Puppetry’, a chase inspired by nouvelle vague
cinema told with pictures and music. Blind Summit is now working with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the British Museum, as well as directing the Magic Flute
at Bregenz Festival 2013. Catch them on the up while they still have time for small stages.The Table is at the 1933 Old Millfun Theatre Tuesday 30-Wednesday 31 October. See event details