I had some reservations before taking my seat at The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for ‘Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons: A Reimagining’. Reworkings of masterpieces, however well considered and critically received, are always going to be provocative – and as the score was subsequently rearranged by The Globe’s Musical Director, Bill Barclay, and is Emma Rice’s final original piece of programming as Artistic Director at The Globe, this performance was never going to come neutrally packaged.
How would perhaps the most infamous work of the legendary Baroque composer, now reworked by his contemporaries, translate into modern puppet theatre? Would it be too highbrow, too clever for its own good? And would anything of its origins be able to reach through the considerable passage of time to us sat in the candlelight of the present moment? Would we be able to connect? Would we be moved?
Ahead of that hushed moment before the first act, the interior of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse began to fuse past and present – a chocolate box space that glittered and glowed, inviting us to settle in its cosy nook somewhere outside of time. Above the stage, housed in a shallow gallery, an intimate band of musicians drew ornate melodies from their strings. And then came the performers – a small troupe of five puppeteers, dressed in the uniform of the puppet theatre: timeless, causal, slightly-worn, all black.
The stage was set.
As is the received wisdom in puppeteering – it all began with the breath. Puppeteers forge their connection with the puppet by breathing with their charge, imbuing life with each respiration. And this tethering was returned to throughout, woven into the fabric of the narrative as ground for the puppeteers to maintain the interconnectedness with both their puppets and each other that was so vital to the performance.
For it was clear from the outset that this was something quite special. There is a certain quality of precision and care that marks any artistic mastery out, whatever the form. And ‘Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons: A Reimagining’ has it in spades. Performed on table tops in a bunraku style, every detail of the movement was considered and conveyed with endless fluidity.
Vivaldi’s original composition is a powerful piece of music, and nothing of this emotional resonance is lost in Richter’s respectful recomposition. It remains deeply affecting, perhaps more so, as Richter’s considerable experience in writing musical scores for film has surely honed his ability to touch modern audiences. And despite the limitations of the version performed (only six musicians), it is still highly evocative.
It could be argued that much of the emotive landscape has already been carved out by the score, but at no point did the puppeteers rest on their laurels in this regard. Language free, emotion expressed via a keen observation of body language was also thrown onto the puppeteers faces, for these performers were never intended to be hidden. They were integral to the story, effortlessly morphing into narrative features such as supporting characters and even landscapes. Scene transitions flowed with similar ease, as tables were gently swept into new positions and puppets held with the care one might an infant, always kept ‘alive’ albeit sometimes for a moment in a suspended animation.
The design was courageously simple. The puppets had a wooden appearance (a hand painted finish) and neutral expression, with supporting props and pieces fashioned from twigs and rags, which transformed in the puppeteers’ hands into butterflies, flowers, a cat and even traumatic flashbacks from the past. Such stripping down begs an imaginative engagement from the audience; it evokes rather than dictates, demanding far more active, less passive interaction. And this was possibly the most controversial aspect of the performance in some respects. As this invitation to participate, to respond to the visual cues and take your own journey with the music, may have missed its mark with some.
There is a great deal to appreciate in Gyre & Gimble’s ‘Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons: A Reimagining’ – the masterful puppetry, the minimalist design, the incredible music and the opportunity for the audience to layer their own imagination onto the work, as these more traditional media forms, such as literature, have done for centuries. Yet the performance is also cinematic in its vision and especially its score – epic in fact, despite the sparseness of its ingredients.
Beautifully crafted, expertly delivered. This performance requires your attention.
‘Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons: A Reimagining’ at The Globe is on until the 21st April. To find out more about Gyre & Gimble and their work, visit their website at: http://www.gyreandgimble.com, or Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo and Instagram feeds. To book tickets to see the performance at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, visit the Globe’s website.