“The Table felt like the end of a long journey about the nature of puppets and puppeteers,” reflects Mark Down, artistic director of Blind Summit Theatre, on the company’s last, highly acclaimed show at the Edinburgh Fringe. “We wanted to move forward into a show that’s more about ‘something’.”
That show is Citizen Puppet, which opens at the Pleasance Courtyard on 5 August. Billed as a 'puppet-docudrama', it tells the "true" story of Jack and the Beanstalk. Where The Table was a comically foul-mouthed tirade by one puppet, this time Blind Summit are tackling one of the archetypal stories of western childhood.
Citizen Puppet stemmed from the company’s desire to do something verbatim and monologue-based. “But we realised that when puppets talk about the real world, it didn’t seem real,” says Down. “Instead, it seemed that what was ‘true’ for a puppet was a fairy-tale.” If puppets could talk, theirs, surely, would be a language of metaphors, myths and magic beans.
While the title came first (“sort of a backwards way of thinking,” says Down, with a laugh), a tale of foreign lands and things quite literally crashing to the ground felt perfect for taking a sideways look at the meaning of ‘citizenship’ in our world of banking crises, inequality and political upheaval.
Jack and the Beanstalk is “clearly propagandist for colonialism,” says Down. “It became popular in Britain in about 1700 and is absolutely tied to the occupation of America, the growth of the British Empire and the entire financial system we’re sitting on.” And the fear of difference embodied by the giant was ripe for subversion.
So why tell such a story with puppets? While they’re a "nightmare to figure out,” says Down, “they’re fantastic when you finally hit on the answer.” And with puppets, “instead of talking about the world and seeing the metaphor, you talk about the metaphor and see the world.” In other words, storytelling of the fairytale kind is built into their very nature.
After years of working with puppets Down is still fascinated by the imaginative leap, the way they require you to “hold two concepts in your head at the same time” – belief in their ‘aliveness’ but also in the puppeteer. This “bizarre and thrilling” experience is what keeps Blind Summit going, even though “it seems just as hard this time as it did last time”.
With 10 puppets, Citizen Puppet is a big step up from The Table. But while Down jokes about being “terrified”, he’s excited by “upping the ante” and welcomes the Fringe’s support of risk-taking. “It challenges you to try something unusual,” he says. “But I also know [audiences] won’t support just anything,” he stresses. “You have to do good work.”
Your show in five words
Political, verbatim, fairy tale, puppetry.
Why should audiences see it?
Because it’ll be fucking brilliant.
Fringe top tips
That’s a difficult one. Bryony Kimmings I always like to see; and Stewart Lee is always just a guilty pleasure.