Michael Flanders, Daniel Barenboim,Stravinsky

Many years ago, just after my period as a remarkably unsuccessful “antique” seller in the Camden Passage market, I joined the Little Angel Puppet Theatre and started out on what would be one of my main careers, that of a theatre technician.

My chief area of work there was as a lighting guy and scenery maker, and John Wright, the wonderful South African Puppeteer who ran the theatre with his wife, Lindy taught me all I needed to know to do that work.

John wright
John Wright

One of the true highlights of my time with them was the version of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, which we performed at the Purcell Rooms (part of the Royal Festival Hall complex on the south bank of the Thames).

This was a seriously big undertaking for the Little Angel Theatre crew, who were more used to working on the small and intimate scale of their own theatre in Islington in a setting that was totally set up for puppetry – not a description that you could apply to the Purcell Rooms, which was simply a flat stage at the end of a long and relatively narrow auditorium, and which was, reasonably enough, set up and designed for small scale classical concerts to be performed in.

But, I am happy to say, we pulled it off magnificently.

The basic idea was that we used a whole series of rod puppets (controlled from below and behind by means of rigid rods connected to their moving parts), and the puppeteers were dressed from head to foot in soft, non-reflective – black fabric, and worked on a stage that had a series of steps going across the stage from left to right, so the further upstage you went (away from the audience) the higher you were.

The stage itself was also painted matt black, and the sides and back of the stage were covered with soft black fabric.

The lighting was by means of a series of spot lights on either side of the stage, aimed across the stage horizontally, with very narrow beams.  And the idea was that the puppets would be held in one or more of these beams of light, and thus be visible to the audience, and when not held in the light, would be invisible.

The created the effect of the puppets floating in the air, but as often is the case with puppets, one quickly stopped “seeing” them as floating, but sort of invented a ground for them to be walking on.. odd how our minds do that sort of thing.

Most of the puppets were about a meter (3 foot) tall, but as there were no reference points regarding size, the audience quickly saw the puppets as normal human size.  So when at the very end of the story, the soldier crosses the frontier to be reunited with his lover, and the Devil comes to claim his soul, we used a Devil puppet which was about 8 feet tall, so it looked enormous when it loomed over the soldier puppet we used in that scene (the soldier puppet we used there was a very small one, about 30 cms tall to make the difference in size even more marked and dramatic).

John Wright with Devil puppets (thanks to Ronnie le Drew for this photo)
John Wright with Devil puppets (thanks to Ronnie le Drew for this photo)

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