Formed in 1981 by four ex-Michaelis graduates, Handspring Puppet Company have produced eleven plays and two operas, collaborated with many different artists – William Kentridge included – and opened in over 200 venues in South Africa and abroad
In the early 1980s an experiment began at the southern tip of Africa, which over the following three decades demonstrated an unwavering commitment to re-imagining the ways in which human beings perceived one another. This experiment was based upon a radical understanding of the personhood of all human beings, and it tested the common sense assumptions about the boundaries to such personhood. It explored the proposition that the life of any individual subject is both limited and sustained by other such subjects, and that agency and autonomy arise from a collective commitment to some ideal place of imagining: a Utopia, a theatre, if you will, in which political ideals are modelled, scrutinised and tested.A theatre, indeed, because these comments are not a reflection upon these recent years of political upheaval in our new state; but rather, a consideration of the life careers of Handspring Puppet Company.My comments cannot claim to be disinterested. I have worked with Handspring on several projects, and am editor of a new book on Handspring by David Krut Publishing. Be forewarned, then. This is not a review. Rather, it is a set of observations from a maker/writer who has observed Handspring’s intellectual and aesthetic enquiries over the past several decades. What I hope to capture here is something of Handspring’s deliberate investigations into the relationship between beings; between things; and between things and beings. I have, through the research undertaken for the book, become alert precisely to that “deliberate” character of Handspring’s art. Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones (two of the founder-members of the company) have attracted worldwide attention in recent years, both for their recent work on puppetry design and performance ethics in War Horse, as well as for their role in the theatrical innovations of artist-director William Kentridge. These creative high points emerge from a career defined by a high degree of sustained self-consciousness and aesthetic acuity. Theirs is an artistry that arises from a circuit of information shifting constantly between accident and intention, in a chain of exploration, scrutiny, and analysis, which in turn informs exploration. Four ex-Michaelis graduates, Jill Joubert, Jon Weinberg, Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, formed Handspring Puppet Company in 1981. Handspring’s origins were based in a fine arts practice, and Jones and Kohler had experimented with installation work and sculpture before immersing themselves in a life in the theatre. By the 1980s performance arts were beginning to enter into the field of vision; at the same time, Handspring had explicit purposes, determined by the political context of apartheid South Africa. They quickly established themselves as a company seeking to support and promote indigenous idioms, and committed themselves to performances which interrogated state power and satirised privilege and class exploitation. Even an ostensibly playful piece such as Gertie’s Feathers used the medium of a children’s play about ostriches to stage a political satire exposing the exploitation of farm workers and the alienated conditions of production under capitalism.This commitment to an ethical and politically conscious performance programme has, for Handspring, been inseparable from their exploration of puppetry as an aesthetic medium. While the radicalism of certain puppetry traditions, such as that of the Czech artist Jiri Trnka, is well known, within the British lineage, puppetry survives via the often-debased popular seaside entertainment, the Punch-and-Judy show. Both Jones and Kohler have discussed the significance of these origins. It is in part because of such ambivalence that the artists turned early on to the Japanese Bunraku tradition, with its classical intellectual authority and aesthetic wonder. This became a pivotal point of significance for Handspring. In the Japanese Bunraku performance tradition, the puppeteer is both visible and invisible on stage. Here largish dolls (usually about one half to two-thirds of life-size) are held and performed into life by artists who remain obscured by black gauze throughout the play. The shadowy black-suited puppeteers are in a way reminiscent of beekeepers, or of fencing masters whose dexterity and athletic skills exhilarate the audience who watch the ‘dance’ undertaken by figures whose passions and emotions remain concealed behind an unreadable screen. Kohler and Jones initially embraced the Bunraku tradition because it liberates the puppet from the rather awkward and limiting expressive range of movements possible with marionettes (or stringed puppets). The puppeteers in Bunraku are read as either benign or malevolent deities, or spirit guides who enfold individuals into themselves as they act out cosmic battles of will, desire and surrender through the individual lives of the puppets.For all of the potentiality of this form, Kohler and Jones intuited that within the South African context the puppeteers were uncanny emblems of a kind of peasant class, or a serfdom who sustain the ‘life-world’ of a domineering community of indifferent figures who pay no regard to those whose enslavement makes possible their every action, and in fact, their very existence.The production Starbrites (1990), directed by South African theatre legend Barney Simon, was the last piece of Handspring’s which made use of the Bunraku puppetry tradition. This work explicitly examined the recovery of a performance archive, with the central events in the narrative pointing to the renewal of township musical traditions which had been subject to ongoing repression and neglect during the apartheid era. In 1990, the year of the production’s first staging, South Africa was at a turning point. It was the year of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, an event which set in place a chain of transformations which would lead in 1994 to the first democratic election, and in 1996 to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That Commission was itself about the recovery of an archive, because it set in place a series of extensive public hearings into apartheid-era human rights violations. In light of such changes it became evident that the puppeteers would have to emerge from the shadows. A new visual idiom was needed.As Kohler’s own account makes clear, Handspring Puppet Company’s performance idioms arose out of various and intersecting intellectual and creative lineages. His autobiographical record indicates his great debt to Thelma, his mother, who as an art teacher in the Eastern Cape, had awakened her son to the potential for play and ecstasy in puppetry.1 He also cites the key significance of the work of Lily Herzberg, the initiator of Puppet Space, a puppetry initiative at the anti-apartheid theatre The Space in Cape Town.2 In 1978 Kohler had an encounter with an art object which was to redirect much of his creative thinking over the following decades. He saw (and purchased) a carved figure from the Totem Meneghelli Gallery in Johannesburg. What initially appeared to be a wooden sculpture was clearly a puppet. There, concealed within the cloth costume of the figure, were the rods and handholds used for manipulating and performing the figure. This triggered a life-long commitment to interpreting and exploring the Malian Bambara puppetry traditions. In 1984 Handspring undertook an ambitious production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a work of theatrical syncretism which brought together fantasy elements with vast Malian-style puppets representing the figures of Oberon and Tatania. The piece was a landmark event in South African theatre, which had been so insistently, so obstinately, cut off from African performance and artistic traditions. The visual and sound environments of this theatre piece seemed to change what was possible. The production of Tall Horse (2004), a collaboration with the Sogolon Puppet Troupe of Mali directed by Marthinus Basson, represented the culmination of a dialogue between Handspring’s avant garde practice and the contemporary interpretation of traditional Malian performance arts. A decade earlier, in 1992, Handspring began collaborating with William Kentridge. The encounter would establish a cycle of mutual challenge and provocation that was to generate experiment across the following decade. The productions developed during these years include the landmark works, Woyzeck on the Highveld and Faustus in Africa. My own working relationship with Handspring began in 1996, and I participated as scriptwriter to Ubu and the Truth Commission and Zeno at 4am/The Confessions of Zeno. In these productions there is an unstable and dynamic combination of puppetry and live acting, with some characters represented by actors, and some by puppets.3 This development was extended further as an aesthetic enquiry with the staging of the Monteverdi opera Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria (The Return of Ulysses). Several profound adventures in creative innovation emerged during these years, and I would like to remark on two such developments, because they are defining elements within Handspring’s work.The first concerns the puppet, which is taken to be ‘alive’ only to the extent that it is sustained through the performance of its existence. The puppet’s existence is sustained through, say, a two-hour performance because of the attention to the perpetual life force flowing through the puppeteer into the wood. The puppet breathes. By way of example, in the production of Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, the life-saga of Ulysses is recounted while the ailing hero lies dying in his bed. Throughout the performance of his fitful dreams (which are at times enacted on stage by puppets and at times projected via allegorical drawings on a projection screen) the puppet-figure who is the dying Ulysses, lies on his bed ‘breathing’. It is this wholly uncanny presence of the manifestly ‘live’ puppet that gives the production such potent melancholy and metaphysical persuasion.The second development arises from their deployment of several (visible) puppeteers to inhabit the figure of the puppet.pool of affect and attention, performing a single human being, now shifting the hand of a puppet, now lifting a bottle, or engaging in fight, or seducing some local beauty. The humanity of the puppet is wholly dependent on a collectivity of performers, and race and gender disappear into a subtle and complex arrangement of mutuality. A core group of highly skilled and disciplined puppeteers emerged through these years, performers whose own creative imaginations have played a significant part in defining Handspring’s practice. The fine performer Busi Zokufa remains a core member of the group after several decades; others involved in this period included Louis Seboko, Fourie Nyamande and Tau Qwelane. Increasingly, though, that team has embraced and tutored a range of performers from classical actors to opera singers and physical theatre players.In 2007 Handspring was invited to undertake a massive staging of puppets for the National Theatre in London. The production, War Horse, was based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo, which explores the disasters of the First World War by examining it from the perspective of the horses that were deployed as a ‘technology’ to draw canon and to move equipment across the blasted battlefield. I have just seen the production, which is still playing to full houses after some two years. The production’s great achievement arises from the intelligent attention given to imaging the horse as a sensate yet wholly other being. Paul Taylor’s review in the London Independent captures some of this: “Imparting a superlative sense of emotional depth, the stage version refuses to anthropomorphise the animals… Though not assembled through found objects, the puppets reminded me rather of Picasso’s wicker-basket goat sculptures. There’s that same sense of the animal and the metaphysical.”At the outset, I indicated that this would not be a review, but rather merely a set of observations. A final observation. My concluding remarks exceed that constraint. The publication Handspring Puppet Company captures much of the awe of Handspring’s world of material invention, of spatial imagination, and ethically serious play. The book reveals the extent to which creative hope arises from a sustained commitment to discipline, craft and care. Jane Taylor is an author, playwright and scholar. She divides her time between CapeTown and ChicagoNOTES1. In some sense, this is the work of all mothers. It is the mother who, through an act of identification and imaginative projection, transfers her personhood into the inchoate little nest of drives and desires which is her child; similarly, the infant apprehends its own potential journey into identity and autonomy, through watching the sublime competencies of its mother who can walk, and soothe, and feed, and disappear and return, and return, and disappear. It was through watching the puppet of an infant (in the Handspring/Kentridge production of Büchner’s Woyzeck) that I began to apprehend that the art of puppetry provides an allegory of our human co-dependencies. We are willing to believe in the existential reality of the puppet because as a species we necessarily are required to hold onto our faith in the emergent personhood of the human infant2. The Space was a radical experiment in non-racialism in apartheid South Africa. In 1972 the actress Yvonne Bryceland and her husband Brian Astbury set up the first expressly non-racial theatre in the country, and from this base they developed many transformative and significant works (often with playwright Athol Fugard)3.