In September, with support from the Federation of Scottish Theatre's Go See Network Share fund, I visited the Festival Mondial des Theatres de Marionettes at Charleville-Mezieres in France. The festival was celebrating its 20th edition this year, though the first one took place in 1961. It was described to me beforehand as the “world cup of puppetry” – not a concept I’d thought of before – and it is certainly very international, though with a commitment to having at least 50% of the work shown be French.
Charleville-Mezieres is on a loop in the Meuse river in the Ardennes. Within the arts, it is probably best known for its connection with puppetry - both through the festival and its International Institute of Puppetry – and as the birthplace of Arthur Rimbaud, who is immortalised in the name of the town's bookshop.
The official festival has a number of satellites and there is a huge amount of work in all sorts of genres to choose from. I’d been advised to book shows well in advance, and this was very good advice as all the shows I saw were sold out and I wouldn’t have got to see them if I hadn’t booked ahead. The astonishing amount and range of work on offer makes even a short visit to the festival worthwhile: I saw 11 shows in 48 hours, including student work at the institute, a traditional Pulcinella show, and a big new work by the long established Mossoux Bonté Company. There is a lot of informal presentation (and advertising) of work:
This year there was a digital strand to the festival and I saw a couple of shows that were experimenting with how to incorporate new technology in live performance, which made for some fascinating counterpoints: seeing a shadow puppetry show followed almost immediately by a show using high definition projection was interesting as a reminder that there is rarely a really new way of doing things, just different developments of the same basic idea. Holding objects in front of a light-source to create an image on a screen is essentially the same as projecting digitally-created imagery: we can sometimes get caught up in the novelty of new technology and forget that it is what they see that matters to an audience, not how it is made.
Overall, the festival is a great way to understand the range of work that the phrase ‘Puppet Theatre’ contains: I saw work from North and South America as well as Europe , France, Finland, Germany, Canada, and Scotland. The last show I saw was an astonishing piece of theatre that defies categorisation. The Great He-Goat by the Belgian Mossoux Bonté company is inspired by one of Goya’s so-called black paintings – murals painted on the walls of his home at the very end of his life. The performance is a dazzling mix of physical and visual theatre, using music, grotesque imagery and life-size half-puppets which make it impossible at times to tell which figures are human and which are animated. This hugely-ambitious and beautifully-executed work was reason enough to have gone to the festival - you can find a trailer and images from it here.