Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Review • PERÔ • Speertheater at The Unicorn Theatre • 2008

The foyer of the Unicorn Theatre, with its famous unicorn, decorated with some of Speeltheater's puppets. Photo: © Sarah Vernon

The foyer of the Unicorn Theatre, with its famous unicorn, decorated with some of Speeltheater’s puppets.
Photo: © Sarah Vernon

Dutch theatre company Speeltheater have arrived at The Unicorn Theatre bearing puppets, music and moonshine. Guus Ponsioen’s adaptation of French author Michel Tournier’s children’s book Pierrot ou les secrets de la nuit has been around since 1994, touring widely and garnering awards. Taking the ancient story of Pierrot, Columbine and Harlequin and fashioning an exquisite puppet show with unusually sophisticated lyrics and music, also by Guus Ponsioen, Perô well deserves its longevity.

Perô the baker is in love with Colombina, his neighbour, but cannot declare himself because he works at night.Perô , like his forebear Pierrot, is a moonstruck romantic. But Colombina, a flirty laundress, works in the day and is a daughter of the sun. The Sun (a haughty Annemarie Maas, possessed of a truly lovely singing voice) perches at a high piano on one side of the stage and the Moon (Guus Ponsioen, dreamier and more fragile) perches at the other side, each vying for their own acolyte. Rollicking piano, breakneck lyrics and a soaring saxophone produce a distinctively European sound, with the gusto and oompah-pah of circus music pierced by lonely echoes of Kurt Weill. One wonderful song is composed almost entirely of types of bread, but sung with such hurtling speed that it was not always easy to decipher every Dutch-accented word.

Visually, this is also a treat. Designers Onny Huisink (also the director) and Vincent Sturkenboom have used a palette of black, white and grey, like a children’s book read by the light of the moon. It is only with the arrival of Perô’s rival in love, housepainter Palentino (Harlequin), that colour appears – reds and blues daubed with abandon, heralding trouble. Perô and Colombina inhabit two tall white houses – and any child who loves dolls houses will adore this – the puppets actually enter and go about their respective businesses. Perô has a bread oven and a chimney that smokes and Colombina operates a washing machine.

One of the interesting aspects of a puppet show is always the relationship between puppeteer and puppet. Sometimes the puppeteer is no more than an invisible presence, totally in thrall to his/her puppet. Sometimes there is a power struggle going on between the two, the puppet a latent force ever ready to take over the puppeteer. Sometimes they are locked, happily or not, into an eternal conversation.

Speeltheater have created something very different, whereby the puppets themselves have no awareness of their manipulators, and therefore show none of the sassiness and delinquency we have come to expect. It is the puppeteers whose role has been extended; not only do Inez de Brujin (Colombina) and Timmy Velraeds (Perô) manipulate their charges with parental tenderness, they share the same characters. The skittish, vivacious de Brujin and the gentle Velraeds conduct their own courtship throughout the play and the final, consummating dance of joy at the end thus extends out of the tall white houses and on to the forefront of the stage. It is a liberating idea.

I enjoyed Perô enormously and the audience of young schoolchildren – ages varying from around 6 to 9, I would guess – were enthralled. The late arrival of one school left the teacher of a young class talking loudly to her pupils. Had any of them been to the theatre before, she enquired. Only four of them put up their hands. Lucky kids to have this distinctive show as their first experience of theatre: romantic, wistful, and elegantly European. What a contrast to the brash formulas of a Disney Channel world.

Claire Ingrams © 2008

Originally published on R&V 28-09-08

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