The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare The Freak! An Interview with Wattle & Daub

The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak‘ is a monstrous chamber opera for puppets based on the true story of Tarrare the Freak, an 18th century French revolutionary spy with an insatiable appetite for live cats, amputated limbs and the occasional toddler. We sat down with Tobi Poster, Co-Artistic Director at Wattle & Daub, in advance of the show’s world premiere at the Bristol Festival of Puppetry, to chat about operatic puppetry, what puppets can lend to the macabre and those defining moments in medical history on the autopsy table…

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Can you tell me a little bit about Wattle & Daub? How did the company get started? Why puppetry? What’s the appeal?

The company got started accidentally when I agreed to help Laura (Purcell Gates) with a puppet performance she was developing. We began developing a way of working together that enabled both of us to explore our preoccupations within theatre and the world.  For me puppetry is fascinating because of how complete a collaboration it is between the performers and the audience. In my view, without an audience a puppet is just a doll being waggled around – it relies on both the manipulator and the spectator to come to life. We’re really interested in how puppetry seems to demand active spectators – and we’re constantly playing with how we can show the workings of the puppet so the audience are actively making the decision to go along with it and believe in the character, rather than being swept away by a perfect illusion. We’re not interested in tricking anyone.

Can you tell me a little bit about the performance of ‘The Depraved Appetite…’ that you will be presenting at BFP15? Is there something that puppetry can lend to macabre tales in particular?

The performance is based on the unlikely true story of Tarrare, an 18th century sideshow freak and French revolutionary spy with an insatiable appetite for live cats, amputated limbs and the occasional toddler. I came across this incredible story on the weird part of Wikipedia and couldn’t believe no-one had turned it into a puppet-opera yet! I think it’s the kind of story that can only be told in all it’s gruesome glory using puppets, and the concepts are of a scale that seems to require music. It’s very filmic, but more immediate and raw than you’d be able to capture on film. I also think there are few stage or film actors who would be willing to swallow a cat whole, but I might be wrong.

What’s new, exciting or innovative about this work? What do you hope it will bring to audiences at BFP15?

Puppet-opera is actually a very old form, but I think this piece is fairly unique in that it’s a chamber opera written specifically for puppets – it’s very music-driven as well as very visual. We’ve got 2 puppeteers, 2 singers and 2 musicians bringing to life a cast of over 20 puppets, and I think the forms we’re using have allowed us to do this epic story justice in a way that 6 people wouldn’t otherwise be able to. Musically, it’s both accessible and rather bizarre – it has the largest range for a single singer that we’re aware of, as well as a number of songs written specifically for the male soprano voice. I think people will leave humming the songs – we always do on our way home from rehearsals!

Interview by Emma Windsor


The world premiere of ‘The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak‘ is on tonight (02 Sept) and tomorrow (03 Sept) at 8pm at the Tobacco Factory Theatre.  For further information, see the Bristol Festival of Puppetry website.

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