Pulling the Stringsby Katie de Klee / Images by Le Poulailler / 24.05.2013
At one stage of history the French had two La Reunions. The first, an island in the Indian Ocean where I happened to find myself at a theatre festival last week; the second a small socialist utopian community that only lasted a few years at the end of the nineteenth century in Texas. The second Reunion is dead as the Dodo which is the symbol of the first. The French have never been good communists, no matter what their philosophers write, but they were kinder colonialists than the British. They attempted to turn their subjects into good French citizens and bring their language and cultures into their empire. And they’re still doing it today. The Creoles on Reunion Island call the Francophones ‘z’oreilles’ (the ears) because they hold their hands to their ears when they don’t understand the local dialect.
The theatre is a funny community. We’re all there being given the same things, accepting the same information, believing the same things. A play or an act must appeal to a crowd instead of the individual, must appeal to everyone at once. Novels and poems are for enjoying alone, but a show must, within limited space and limited time, appeal to the assembly. And a theatre audience is not a normal crowd: unlike a football mob or a church congregation there may be little in common from seat to seat. And we all sit there watching, waiting to be brought to life, influenced and entertained by what we see, like marionettes with slack strings.
There were two particularly good puppet shows in the Leu Tempo festival, one from Reunion and the other from Belgium. The Reunion puppet company is called Theâtre des Alberts and their show Théodore, le Passager du Rêve. Théodore, a puppet with long arms and legs, is a dreamer. Accompanied by Aristophanes the owl, he leaves from platform 19 in the station west of dreams on a quest for love. On his journey through a fantastical landscape, passing in and out of scenes in cardboard boxes, he encountered many strange and marvellous things. The tiny stages were projected large onto a screen at the back of the room and the artistry was quite stunning.
The children in the audience had been invited to sit at the front and they began to crawl slowly forwards, leaning over the edge of the stage, as though they hoped that a closer look might tip them into Théodore’s world.
Theatres d’un Jour, a Belgian company, presented L’Enfant qui… a story based on the life of the sculptor Jephan de Villiers who spent much of his youth ill and confined to a hospital bed. Aesthetically the set is like one of his sculptures. As a child he lived near a wood and would wander around picking up feathers and sticks and making things out of them, and the young puppet child does the same, picking up odd leaves and sticks and placing them in the hands of the audience.
It was strange, a bit like a Brothers’ Grimm fairy tale and all to the sound of a single cello. There were acrobats who teased and tormented the child, throwing him into a metal hospital bed and blowing white powder into his face.
It was intimate, performed to a small audience so that we are close to the puppet and close to the fear. The little puppet was young and vulnerable with wide unblinking eyes behind his spectacles and manoeuvred by a gentle woman, like a mother who made him seem so human.
The relationship between a good puppeteer and their puppet is not just that of animating the thing. This morning I pressed a button and the kettle came to life, I moved a belt through my trouser loops and it danced against my hips but neither of these things are puppets. To create the illusion of life the puppeteer must give the puppet breath, must share a life force with it.
There was one South African group that made it into the Leu Tempo programme: the Mayolaboots. A band of gumboots dancers from Soweto who teamed up with some Creole musicians. Their show, which they stomped out twice a day in front of the town hall was, as expected: rhythmic, enthusiastic and energetic, though perhaps not as refined as some of the other performances.
They wore orange and blue boilersuits and orange hard hats, which they never took off, not even when they were eating. They had taken over a section of the press area, against the ankles of one of the stretch tents, filled it with chairs and a few cushions and they would go there to digest, leaning their helmets against the backs of the chairs. Some days there’d be others with them, local women who seemed magnetically drawn to them. Other days they’d sit alone. It was quite an exclusive set up; you wanted to be hanging with the gumboot dancers. I thought about interviewing them, but every time I went near they’d look from my eyes down to my canvas shoes and move as if to hit on me.
The night the festival ended there was a Grand Parade down the main street of Saint Leu, bands and floats and painted faces on poles. When the parade and all its raucous followers had passed through the residents set up speakers at intervals along the street. Liked parked cars with their radios on and only the passengers on the street dancing. And there were pancake sellers, kebab vendors and pizza vans on every corner.
And after the show there’s the after party, by invitation only, held in the Ravine behind the town. In the same venue where I had seen the first performance a week ago, I now danced under a shiny disco ball with its cast.
At the airport in the morning I bought myself an over-billed café enorme the size of a shot of espresso and sat waiting. The Maloyaboots dancers were on the same flight back to Johannesburg, I saw their bright plastic hats coming towards the departure gate. I had left the Après at around 2am, and had crossed them in the car park heading in.
‘Were you up all night?’
‘Yes sisi. South Africans don’t get tired.’
Within 20 minutes of takeoff they had all collapsed forward over their tray tables: a whole row, all with their helmets and boiler suits still on, asleep in their seats. Soothed by the low hum of the aeroplane’s engine. The curtains were going down on the week we’d had, a week where the Island became a stage and we all merely players. I left almost as tired as when I’d arrived, the week slipping behind me into memory and as we landed and the boys in boots woke up it felt like it could all have been a dream.
To the many acts I never mentioned I am sorry, you were too good and too many.
* Images © Le Poulailler