Puppets at play with form & history

A review of Coop
Real Time – June-July 04 Edition
By Jonathan Marshall (at the UNIMA puppetry festival)

Originally devised as a musing on Hieronymus Bosch’s sensually grotesque altarpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights (1504), under the title In The Beginning… Uhmmm… (2006), Coop (2007) has evolved into a sophisticated work exploring themes identified by Artaud in his commentary on Bosch. Artaurd’s desire to smash through reality, representation and language was motivated by his characterisation of the universe as a demiurgical construction, of creation not as the product of a loving god but rather a demotic trickster and conjurer who has doomed us to false or incomplete perception and to a language insufficient to express reality. Although one can read Coop’s raging, mute patriarch as God – or as a homeless man who imagines himself to be God – the curses and arbitrary rages he visits on his children/companions are more suggestive of Artaud’s Demiurge.

Like Artaud’s work, Coop is resonant with Christian imagery. Coop’s wild, dishevelled young man who returns to the patriarchal fold could be the Prodigal Son, though a later scene where two of the characters animate small marionettes to whom the father-puppet gives miniature wings before jealously ripping them off and kicking the damned male puppet, also suggests the Fall of Satan from his original place as God’s most favoured angel. And is the women a daughter, sibling, lover, or all of these in her guises as Eve and Mary to these males? Whichever she is – and no single interpretation is satisfactory – she is an object of possessive conflict between them.

The physicality of the performers is particularly astute. They hung, crawl, grab and stroke – sometimes equipped with wax hands on sticks like ex votos. They gape, contort and shriek as though not quite human. They too are overtly puppets, animated animal-object-things which inhabit this space, given life as much by surrounding scenographic structures (Ben Cobham’s gorgeous set whose crossed arch of exposed beams suggests a wrecked ark or the ribs of Jonah’s whale) and sounds (a wonderful electroacoustic, and often quotational, radiophonic score from Kelly Ryall) as by their own souls or desires. In a particularly haunting moment, the woman is seduced and aroused by the spidery hand of the young man, here given its own life through the addition of a glowing infantile doll’s head.

Amidst such incestuous co-minglings of plastic and meat (also featured is a comically dancing chicken carcass, complete with red boots, choreographed by Michelle Heaven) Lautreamont’s Surrealist adage of humans and objects sharing their desires to produce that which is as beautiful as the coupling – on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella – is potently active. While Kentridge revivifies a body now suffering from rigor mortis, director Nancy Black and her collaborators generate a production whose diverse fusions of materials and projections of desire remain conceptually unresolved and endlessly open to new readings.