I am not sure you are supposed to be made to cry by a puppet, but I was the victim of such an emotional attack last week and had no answer to it. So the tissues came out and have continued to come out every time I think of the poor little thing huddled up on the stage, lifeless beyond the bits of wood and string that it is actually made of. Even going to see the latest Disney, the marvelous ‘Moana’ has not totally cheered me up.
The Lovely Wife and I were lucky enough to catch one of the final performances of ‘The Little Match girl (and happier tales)’ at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse, the quite wonderfully atmospheric and candle lit indoor performance space at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre on the South Bank. I had not originally thought of going but the reviews were extremely good and at £10 for a standing ticket you can usually afford to take a risk that actually it might be overrated. It wasn’t.
The short reign of Emma Rice as artistic director at the Globe has been a controversial one (including of course her dismissal). Personally I have found it a little hit and miss; interesting certainly, but nothing to match some previous productions for entertainment and energy (personal highlights were the 2010 productions of Henry IV part 1 and 2 and the 2012 Henry V, all starring the hugely underrated Jamie Parker as Hal/Henry V). However, I’m very grateful for ‘The Little Match girl’ as the experience was a unique one and one likely to stay with me for a long time.
The show is based on several of Hans Christian Anderson stories, including Thumbelina and the Emperor’s New Clothes (the slightly happier stories). Many of you will know that the story of the Little Match Girl doesn’t end well so I was partly prepared for the pull on the heart strings but as the performance progressed you could real feel her slipping away (also thanks to some great puppetry) and there was nothing you, as the observer, could do about it. The story is simple; the little girl is trapped on the streets, and the only thing that brings her warmth and solace is by lighting one of the dwindling number of matches. In this case, that summons Ole Shuteye, a storyteller, who proceeds to delight the little girl with stories, with his band of performers, and he delights the audience too with clowning, songs, more puppets and a goodly amount of breaking the Fourth Wall. This is the bulk of the performance and is often very funny, although in keeping with the nature of the original stories you do not have to look far below the surface to see the social commentary and at the end of each you are dragged back, as is your heroine, to reality – or something passing as reality. There are some odd things here, that feeling of dreams layered on dreams, but they all make perfect sense through a few, devastating late twists.
Eventually however, the laughs become harder to come by, and there is only one match left. There is a terribly sad moment as that final match is allowed to burn right down to the fingers of the character holding it, his face covered so you cannot see the expression. And then it just falls to the stage from his limp hand. Beautiful, and there was no way to avoid being upset.
I was wondering why I could get so upset over a puppet.
I think the key is that in this kind of performance you forget that your protagonist is not a real actor because while they may chat or shake hands with the audience making clear this is a performance they also treat the puppet as though she is a real little girl. As such it completes the illusion and allows you to be genuinely moved when she lifted onto people’s shoulders, or sitting shivering, without shoe or coat on the stage. It always amazes me that you can have the puppeteer in plain sight and yet completely ignore him or her; even in the curtain call, it is not entirely clear who you are applauding as the Little Match Girl ‘walks’ back onto the stage. And that is as it should be. This kind of show is one that exists in several levels of reality – at least three – and to adopt the imagination of a child is the best way to enjoy it. Certainly, the ten year old (at a guess) girl in the front row was virtually wetting herself with laughter most of the time and quietly rapt at the right moments, and so was I.
Afterwards they took a collection for Centrepoint. It was entirely appropriate. We’ve seen a lot of stuff very recently that was incredibly entertaining but not in the least challenging. This was both, and since you cannot save the Little Match Girl (for one aching moment I thought they might have changed the outcome, as the storyteller passionately tells the little girl that ‘I’m not telling your story’ as though that could perhaps save her. But of course that would have been a betrayal and far too Hollywood) maybe we can help save some other person trapped on our streets.