Published in Edinburgh Festivals Magazine
FANS OF Philippe Genty are used to seeing puppetry on a very big scale. The internationally lauded French master specialises in out-size fantastical visions: a woman cradled in an enormous blue hand; a man colliding with a floating pink orb; a creepy insect the size of a human being crawling the stage; a platoon of naked babies parachuting from above . . .
By contrast, the 75-year-old's latest show is an intimate affair. Pitched at family audiences, Dustpan Odyssey takes place on nothing bigger than a table top. In this light-hearted retelling of Homer's ancient Greek epic, the characters and props are household objects. Our wandering hero Odysseus is played by a corkscrew. His men are chocolates and his boat is a dustpan set on top of a brush with a fan for a sail. A soda fountain becomes a whale spurting up water and the table doubles as sea, desert and island.
"This time we're bringing a very small show but Philippe never has a small imagination," says Mary Underwood, Genty's wife and collaborator of 45 years. "When Philippe picks an object it has to have a metaphorical meaning."
Performed in English by three actors, Dustpan Odyssey is enlivened by songs and a constant flow of movement. With the complicity of the audience, the transformation is complete. "The puppet is very real and not an object any more," says Genty. "It's much more imaginative."
To the grown-ups among us, this may seem unusual. To younger audiences, it is second nature. When children are at play, they continually transform one thing into another. "The idea of object theatre comes from the children," says Underwood. "If you study children when they are very young, they will take an object and transform it into a boat or a snake. If children are in the audience, sometimes they are quicker than the adults."
Genty, who remains active despite suffering a stroke two years ago, attributes his restless imagination and roaming spirit to a troubled childhood: "When I was six, my father was killed in a skiing accident and my mother didn't tell me he had been killed until a year later. I felt very guilty because she put me straight into a boarding school. I escaped from 16 boarding schools. I just couldn’t stand the discipline."
His next escape was into the arts. He qualified as a graphic designer before running off on a four-year world tour in a 2CV. Now he escapes into the world of the imagination where he finds the theme of escape cropping up time and again; the much-travelled Odysseus being merely the latest example.
Small-scale or large, he refuses to accept barriers, bringing in whatever technique serves his intentions best. "We take a long time to pick our artists," says Underwood. "We always say to them, 'If you want to be an actor and just talk, you're not for us. If you want to be a dancer and just want to dance, you're not for us. You have to learn to manipulate, to talk and to move.'"
WHERE & WHEN
New Town Theatre, 14–25 August, 12.10pm
From £6, Tel: 0131 220 0143
© Mark Fisher 2013
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