Puppetry of exceptional quality ****

from: De Standaard 16/11/2012

The name Antigone is part of our collective history. She is the tragic heroine who gave up her life for a higher purpose by going against royal authority and burying her dead brother. But who of us still remembers her sister Ismene? Nicole Beutler and Ulrike Quade want to rehabilitate her name.

Choreographer Nicole Beutler and puppet theatre director Ulrike Quade drew inspiration for this adaptation of the Sophocles tragedy from bunraku, a Japanese form of puppet drama for adults.

Watanabe Kazunori made the puppets for this Antigone, and they are as timeless as they are contemporary. The brother, Polynices, is a warrior in camouflage garb. He feels the flexing of his wooden hand, looks up at his manipulator, and then hurls himself into battle. He tumbles, floats and hacks his way through the air like a character in some great boys’ fantasy.

Three dancers manipulate the puppet, although in all the ferocious movement it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether the people are manipulating the puppet, or it’s the other way around. This is the action hero fiction, but the reality of the violence of war strikes home when Polynices is slain in battle. The sound of explosions and machine gun fire assail the puppet’s ears – and ours. And then the three dancers and the puppet collapse in spasms to the ground. This is puppetry of a most exceptional quality, a blow to the stomach.

The puppeteers/dancers Hillary Blake Firestone, Michele Rizzo and Cat Smits control the three puppets with the utmost precision, giving them life with the tiniest of gestures – such as when Ismene, wearing dark sunglasses as she walks in the funeral procession, looks for the last time upon her sister, who has hanged herself. The human and the inanimate, the dancer and the puppet, duplicate and de-duplicate. Just as the puppet is manipulated by the human, so too does tragic fate determine human action.

This version of Antigone preserves the classical development of the original, and is punctuated with fragments of dialogue and choral music. In ‘The Song of Humankind' Antigone rebels against authority in true ‘gabba’ jump style. Although the play is sometimes a little too illustrative, it excels in its fusion of disciplines, of old and new, and of East and West.

The co-directors’ personal opinions come most clearly to the fore when Ismene (puppet and performers sharing a cigarette) look back on her own and her sister's life. Whereas Antigone went into history as a martyr, as a suicide activist, Ismene, who chose life rather than death, has been forgotten.

It’s a pity then that Beutler and Quade don’t take this point to its logical conclusion. They too named the piece after Antigone, when Ismene’s name could have been in lights.

© Liv Laveyne