“This…is…going to happen”
Maybe it is due to some as yet unexplored childhood trauma, but I really don’t like puppets, whether human or animal, I just don’t like ‘em. I can just about cope with Avenue Q type cuddliness, but more realistic ones by and large freak me out which is why I have never seen War Horse. So when a new play by the same company Handspring, was announced at the Cottesloe in the National Theatre, I decided to seize the bull by the horns or the puppet by its strings and go to see Or You Could Kiss Me. This was an early preview and I’m not sure what I was expecting, it wasn’t this.
More often than not I was confused. And when I wasn’t confused I was bored. Despite the rich opportunities, the story is practically non-existent with very few scenes of note as it pursues its fragmented memory play structure, the characterisation felt very weak for the leads and the role of the narrator was by turns baffling and infuriating. A constant presence on the stage (as the only non-puppeteer, Adjoa Andoh actually ends up working the hardest), she is story-teller but also interrogator, teasing the story from the actors, questioning their actions and also given to reciting poetry and prolonged discourses on the nature of memory and thought which all adds up to very little in the end despite Andoh’s best efforts.
There are two sets of puppets, the older and younger versions of both men which looked impressive if you like that kind of thing, variously manipulated by six black-suited and bare-footed people. The dialogue was split between the various puppeteers in a seemingly arbitrary manner: two actors led in the roles of Mr A and Mr B, but not exclusively and it was a highly distracting technique which allowed for very little emotional empathy to be built up. Acoustically, it also proved difficult for me as the delivery was rarely very clear, most often directed inwardly rather than performed out to the audience and so I struggled to make out a lot of what was being said. And I swear I could happily have put the dog puppet, and the man doing the endless barking, in that bin with the cat.
There were a couple of moments when everything finally clicked but these were usually the simplest, with minimal interference: the evocation of diving and swimming was beautifully done and a quiet moment at the bedside threatened to bring a tear to my eye for the briefest of moments. But so much of it was clumsily done: I’m not saying that I wanted to see full-on gay puppet sex, but what should have been a moving first embrace became an awkwardly portrayed huddle of six men with the puppets hidden in the middle; likewise all I took from the final scene was the backs of the puppeteers and the fact that the soles of their feet were remarkably clean rather than seeing the culmination of our journey with these two characters.
Yes, this show is in preview and yes, I have issues when it comes to puppets, but I really don’t see how that much can be changed with Or You Could Kiss Me to make it work better. By focusing so much of the interrogation of the relationship rather than its depiction, it has failed to provide much of substance. And given that so much work was being put into manipulating these puppets and that this formed the main backbone of the show, it was a shame that they were so often obscured, thereby further highlighting the paucity of the material being presented here.