It all started with a horse. Not a real one — this one is a life-sized puppet made of cane and mesh and bicycle wires, born in the workshop of South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company.

It’s difficult to describe just how incredible it is to see him for the first time, other than to say that if there were a prize for the most lifelike puppet ever created, this horse, Joey, would probably win. He can gallop, prance, rear back on his hind legs, flick his ears, even twitch his skin when touched. Handspring created him for the Bristol Old Vic theater production War Horse, and the show was a massive hit from the moment it opened in 2007. After that, nothing would ever be quite the same for Handspring. They were now squarely in the international theater spotlight.

“I suppose it’s like falling off a horse,” says Handspring’s founder Adrian Kohler, using a singularly appropriate simile. “You’ve got to get back up again and do something new before you get totally overwhelmed about whether you’ll ever be able to work again. War Horse is something we never expected to happen in our careers.”

That something new is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Handspring’s second collaboration with Bristol Old Vic. It’s an inventive take on what is one of Shakespeare’s funniest plays, set in a kind of future-primitive world where everything from the trees to the planks of the buildings can come alive. It’s been a massive undertaking, and proof of how far Handspring has come since its beginnings more than 30 years ago.

Kohler, son of a puppeteer mother and boat-builder father, founded Handspring in 1981 with his husband, Basil Jones. They began as a children’s theater company, performing in schools for the first several years. Though Kohler always intended to expand into doing theater for adults, it took some time to convince those around him that it would work. “In South Africa we don’t really have much of a puppet tradition — not like in West Africa where there is an ancient, hugely developed tradition,” he says. “So more or less we had to start from scratch.”

In 1985, Handspring staged its first adult production, a political play dealing with apartheid. “Everybody thought, ‘What a ridiculous idea, what grown-up is going to come to a puppet play?’ … [But] the opposite of us being ignored happened. It was hugely welcomed. And it opened the doors to us meeting directors who were interested in adding puppets to the language of the theater they used.”

One of those directors was William Kentridge, with whom Handspring collaborated on several plays in the 1990s. Working with Kentridge was an important step in bringing Handspring’s vision to a wider audience. “He was the first director apart from ourselves to trust that a puppet could take the lead,” Kohler says. “Before that it had always been a human in the lead role and the puppets as supporting actors.” That production, an adaptation of a play by Georg Buchner called Woyzeck on the Highveld, has proved Kentridge and Handspring right — 20 years after it first opened, Woyzeck is still playing.

Handspring’s productions have varied greatly in topic and theme, but until Midsummer, there was one constant (for their adult plays, that is): they were all serious works. Handspring has tackled political corruption, colonialism, what it means to grow old with someone, the failures of society, murder, and the corroding effects of jealousy in their plays. Even War Horse, which is adapted from a children’s novel, is a deeply emotional and moving story. So Midsummer provided not only rich material to explore with puppetry — the fairies and their magical world — but also a fun departure from Handspring’s typical subject matter. “Midsummer is the funniest play we’ve ever been involved in,” Kohler says. “There are superb clowns in the cast.”

Kohler and Jones began talking with Bristol Old Vic’s Artistic Director Tom Morris about doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream as early as 2007, during War Horse‘s first season. “Then it was very much on the backburner,” Kohler says. “When War Horse opened in New York [in 2011] and we were together again, that’s when we solidified it. It took about two years of talking and then we went into production.”

Kohler and Jones spent those two years reading and re-reading the play, developing Handspring’s particular approach to the story. Interestingly, that approach began with Hippolyta, the Amazonian woman whom Theseus, the Duke of Athens, is to marry. Instead of remaining a minor character, as Shakespeare wrote her, Hippolyta became Handspring’s doorway into the play. “Basically Theseus is a warrior and she’s an Amazon, and he conquers her and says I’ll marry you and she says um, well, OK. We thought she’s a bit underwritten,” says Kohler. “What’s evolved from our take is she’s trying to reconcile this marriage to herself. So we’ve turned her into kind of a shaman.”

At the start of the play, Hippolyta sculpts two totem figures of a man and a woman that she hopes will bless her marriage. Those totems then come to life as the puppets Titania and Oberon, signaling an altar-ego device that is one of the basic artistic tenets of the play. We see it in the four Athenian lovers as well, who carry around small puppet versions of themselves that they use at defining moments in the story. “These versions of themselves are basically like stop-frame animation puppets. They can be manipulated live, but they can be left almost like a photograph of a moment while actors take on the characters themselves,” Kohler says. “I think the puppets are also ways in which people meditate on the situation they find themselves in in relation to the people they’re supposed to love.”

In a sense, it’s a translation of the old technique of doubling — having an actor play two or more characters — into puppetry. Just as seeing one actor play two separate characters can add philosophical and metaphysical richness to both roles, watching these actors switch between their human and puppet selves adds another level to the story.

And that’s not the only doubling taking place. “When we entered into [Midsummer], we had this one-liner which said ‘all objects have the right to life,'” Kohler says. “That was a kind of governing principle of the way of working on this play.” So everything, from the woods to the very tools in Hippolyta’s workshop, is capable of coming alive. That, of course, requires human actors. “The play is a completely ensemble piece — when you’re not a character you’re a plank or a tree or something else,” says Kohler. The forest seems to have not only life, but intention as well, moving and crowding around the characters at times.

It’s true that there are some for whom this style of theater will never quite take. Even after a triumph like War Horse, puppets can be a hard sell — just ask England’s The Telegraph reviewer who began his less-than-glowing review of Midsummer by stating that he “cordially loath[ed] puppets.”

But if they’re done well, they become much more than a gimmick or an aesthetic choice. Not surprisingly, Kohler’s thought a lot about what puppets bring to a performance that you can’t get with only human actors. There are the more obvious benefits, for example, having to do with representing magical, otherworldly characters. “With the fairies, and the idea of representing an extra-human force, they can tap into the surreal and the ephemeral and the metaphoric in a way that is perhaps more difficult for a performer to do,” he says.

Working with puppets also allows, or perhaps forces, new and creative approaches that are not grounded solely in a literal interpretation of reality. “Abstract styles of performance are starting to be explored again. We live in a tradition of filmic naturalism, which has spilled over radically into the theater,” Kohler says. “I think that the puppet brings a level of abstraction and a kind of once-removedness from the physical flesh of the performer, enabling one to look at the ideas behind them.”

This is why puppets have been around for thousands of years. For whatever reason, there’s something uniquely thought-provoking about seeing a creature made of wood and wire and cloth mimic a living being. And it’s not just the rich metaphorical implications, in Kohler’s opinion. Puppets tell us something about the nature of life itself. “You as the audience, for whom life is a given — you breathe, and you heart beats without your thinking about it — when you see a creature that’s not meant to live trying to do that, it reminds you of how precious your life is,” Kohler says. “It’s poignant because it can’t be like you. It tries to be like you, but it can’t.”

Q&A: David Ricardo Pearce (Oberon/Theseus)

CITY PAPER: What was the most challenging part of learning to act with puppets?

David Ricardo Pearce: The most difficult thing for me is the eye contact. When you’re playing a scene as a human you have your eyes, which are a massive tool as an actor, but when you’re playing through a mask, which I do with Oberon, your eyes are on the eyes of the mask … so we’re never looking at each other when we’re speaking to each other. You learn to use your peripheral vision more and your hearing. You sense things differently.

CP: How did your vision of Oberon change when you saw the puppet you’d be using?

DRP: When I first saw Oberon’s head and hand, it gave a clear idea of the scale of the Oberon that was going to be in this production. I mean, he’s immense. A thought I immediately had is that vocally I have to match that scale. Also, when I’m out of the head and hand puppets and still playing Oberon, it gives me the opportunity to play him more ethereally, and have a lighter touch.

CP: I heard one of your colleagues say on a video interview that it’s the investment of your own imagination in the puppet that really makes the difference — makes it sincere. What are your thoughts on that? 

DRP: It’s the combination of our imaginations and the audience’s imaginations. If you believe your puppet is alive, an audience will believe it too — as long as they are open to the idea. It’s all about shared imagination and a shared journey. I’ve heard from audience members that when they see [Oberon’s] head and the hand, they tend to visualize the rest of the body, which is all from their imagination.

CP: Any closing thoughts?

DRP: This production is as theatrical a production as you will ever see. It’s a celebration of the techniques of theater, without using smokescreens and tricks. We’re just saying, “We’re a group of actors on stage with some wood and stuff. We’re going to tell you a story. Come with us.”

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