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Reviewed by:
  • Handspring Puppet Company
  • Loren Kruger
Handspring Puppet Company. Edited by Jane Taylor. Johannesburg: David Krut Publishing, 2009; pp. 280. $85.00 cloth, $55.00 paper.

Although Handspring Puppet Company has toured internationally since the 1980s, they first came to the United States in 1994, when Woyzeck on the Highveld, the first of several collaborations with the animator-artist-designer-director William Kentridge, appeared at the International Festival of Puppet Theatre in Chicago. Since then, Faustus in Africa (1995), Ubu and the Truth Commission (1996), Il Ritorno d'Ulisse (1998), and Zeno at 4am (2000) have featured the combined talents of Handspring and Kentridge, while The Chimp Project (2000, with late writer and graphic designer Peter Esterhuysen), The Tall Horse (2004, with the Sogolon Puppet Troupe of Mali), and War Horse (2007, with the British National Theatre) have elevated Handspring's evocative animation of animal figures juxtaposed with human actors to new heights.

Handspring Puppet Company is published by David Krut, a press with a reputation for beautiful books on South African artistry, including Light on a Hill, on the art and architecture of the Constitutional Court, and William Kentridge: The Magic Flute, documenting the artist's adaptation of Mozart's opera and showcasing the work of editor Law-Viljoen and designer Papciak-Rose. This present book dazzles the eye with pictures of puppets in performance (many by South Africa's premier theatre photographer Ruphin Coudyzer) and images, sketches, and photographs of puppets in the making (many by Hodgkiss, this book's photographic consultant). These images are more than mere illustrations; in addition to documenting the evolution of the company's work, they provide crucial insight into the processes of imagining, constructing, and executing the puppet as performer, highlighting the puppeteers and designers as co-creators of the work in performance. Although the textual contributions do not quite add up to the blurb's promise to be a comprehensive survey of Handspring's work, the best essays use the accompanying images as analytical evidence that is as illuminating as the verbal argument. [End Page 148]

The strongest essays are by Handspring's founders, master designer-puppeteer Adrian Kohler and his partner, manager-puppeteer Basil Jones. Kohler's long, detailed account in "Thinking Through Puppets" of works from Easter Rising (1985) and Mid-summer Night's Dream (1988) to War Horse delivers the promised survey single-handedly while also, as its title suggests, reflecting on the power of puppets to embody meaning and to generate thought. This idea also animates Jones's contribution "Puppetry and Authorship." His twofold argument—"that puppetry in design and performance is a form of authorship" (253), and that this authorship rests on the authority forged by puppeteer and puppet together in the "performance of life" (254)—highlights the importance of the puppeteer to make visible "ideas that are incommensurate with script and script-writing" (266, emphasis in original) in the course of creating a performance. As he suggests, "the life and credibility of the puppet depend … on the vigilance of the puppeteer. The audience will take the puppet seriously only so long as they believe in this life" (254).

Those familiar with, for instance, Bread and Puppet Theatre (whose activity overlapped with Handspring through the 1990s—well beyond the 1970s to which Taylor's introduction consigns them), as well as with the research of John Bell (Bread and Puppet alumnus and performance historian) would agree. Comparing Bread and Puppet Theatre and Handspring also highlights an important distinction: while Bread and Puppet performers were usually completely hidden by the puppets' robes and often dwarfed by the figures' massive heads designed to capture attention in large outside venues, Handspring puppeteers typically remain visible and visibly engaged (emotionally as well as physically) throughout, drawing the audience into their intimate familiarity with their charges. In Ubu and the Truth Commission, for instance, the puppeteers not only animated figures representing survivors and witnesses, but also showed the processes of that animation and, in their facial expressions, anticipated and reflected the audience's emotional response to this testimony. Because it presents the case for Handspring's originality, as well as guidelines and pitfalls for would-be puppeteers, Jones's essay ought...


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