Josh Elwell talks to puppeteer Ben Thompson about this exciting new production. We look beneath the surface at the process that brings together a contemporary version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by Max Richter, a live sextet of musicians and a team of master puppeteers. The show opens this April and can be seen by candle light at The Globe Theatre.
Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons at The Globe is an exciting collaboration between Gyre & Gimble, a team of master puppeteers (of which you are one), a sextet of musicians and the prolific contemporary musical artist Max Richter. Can you tell us how the collaboration came about and in particular how you yourself became involved in such an unusual project?
Toby and Finn (of Gyre & Gimble) wanted to create a show that mixed puppetry with music to tell a wordless, but still emotionally engaging, show. They approached the Globe with this idea and set about listening to a lot of classical music. They were introduced to Max Richter’s recomposition of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ and knew straight away that it had the epic scope and dynamism they needed.
They held a number of research and development workshops to explore how such a piece could work. I’ve known Toby (Olié) and Finn (Caldwell) since I worked with them on ‘War Horse’ in the West End and have been lucky enough to work with them since on various different projects. They asked me to be a part of one of the workshops and after the last one I was offered a place in the cast.
From your perspective as a puppeteer how has it been working on a show that is a response to a piece of music? In what way has it been different to other projects you have worked on?
It’s actually been quite freeing because there really is no right answer and whenever we got stuck we just went back to the music and explored what it inspired in us. Most of the other projects I’ve worked on have been scripted and mostly fixed before rehearsals start. However, even within those shows, quite often the puppet I’m operating won’t have text (I seem to have done a lot of animal puppets in my time) and so the physical script needs to be discovered. The thoughts and emotional journey of the character mapped out. So in that respect this project is quite similar to others I’ve done.
I know that you are a very accomplished and experienced puppeteer. You have worked on War Horse as well as with other companies like Blind Summit and with me at The National Theatre of Scotland. In what way has this project enabled you to play to your strengths? It would also be interesting to know in what way you have been challenged? What is it like performing to candlelight in The Wanamaker?
The atmosphere in the Wanamaker is just beautiful, but the candle light means you’re not able to focus an audience’s attention like you might with a lighting change/spotlight. Therefore the precision of the puppets’ movements is very important, so as to allow the audience into what the character is thinking or feeling, as well as having moments of stillness to draw their attention to something in particular. Coupled with this is the fact that the audience is on three sides of the stage, meaning that at any one time there’ll be some action that someone can’t see. So, as well as keeping the staging moving and taking in all sides and not just the front, as a puppeteer you have to be very aware of your own body; making more space than perhaps is usual between yourself and the puppet to allow for sightlines.
I knew and worked with Max Richter back in the early 90’s when we were fresh out of college and he was writing music for fringe theatre shows at Arts Threshold in Paddington under the leadership of the young director Rufus Norris. At that time he was full of inspiration and had a wonderful inventiveness. How does his recomposition of this famous piece of music lend itself to the art of puppetry? Has Max been involved and how have you worked with the music during the rehearsal process?
I’m not sure if Max’s recomposition lends itself specifically to puppetry, but it definitely does to theatre and storytelling. It has an epic scale to it with sweeping moments of passion and sustained levels of tension. Of course this is Vivaldi as well, but somehow Richter steps it up a gear. In that way I suppose it’s linked to puppetry in that puppets, particularly human figures like ours, are a heightened form of performance; they are essential as in they show the essence of something. There is no text in the show and so the music acts as the dialogue.
Max hasn’t been directly involved with rehearsals, but has given his permission to use the piece in a scaled down version with just 6 musicians which has been brilliantly rearranged by Bill Barclay, The Globe’s Director of Music. We’re hoping he approves of what we’ve done and that Vivaldi might also like what’s been done to his original.
The first thing we did at the start of rehearsals was to spread out a huge roll of brown paper, grab a load of marker pens and, with each of us taking a section of paper, we listened to the entire piece and drew/wrote/doodled anything that came to mind. Initially this could be quite abstract and disconnected, but then we repeated the exercise and made an attempt to create a narrative that covered the whole piece. From this process a basic storyline was thrashed out and we then set about creating the physical version of it. We would listen to a movement and then improvise a scene to it, repeating and finessing as we went. If we were ever stuck it always helped to go back to the music and see what it inspired.
Perhaps you could tell us a little bit about how it has been working with your fellow puppeteers? It would also be interesting to hear about the process led by G&G’s Toby & Finn?
I’ve worked with a few of the other puppeteers before – or knew them at least – and so it was great to jump straight into the process without the awkwardness that comes with the first few days of a project. It’s been great and inspiring to work with people who work at such a high standard within puppetry. Toby and Finn too have gone from strength to strength with their past projects and the two of them bounce off each other so effortlessly in the room. It’s been one of the most fun rehearsal processes I’ve been a part of, with a lot of laughter and silliness but also a great amount of serious focused work that has brought out some beautiful moments in the show.
What do you see as being the main purpose or message of the production? What do you hope that the audience may take away with them?
It’s going to be interesting to see how an audience reacts to this piece. Every night there’ll be a different make up of people that have come because it’s Vivaldi, or because they’re huge Richter fans and are intrigued to hear this piece. Or those that have come because of the puppetry or simply those that are fans of The Globe and the atmosphere within the Wanamaker. It’s part concert part theatre piece and the etiquette for how to respond to this medley is, I think, not fully known.
Emma Rice, the Artistic Director at The Globe, described the puppets as being ‘crash test dummies for life’ which is lovely way of putting it. The design of the puppets is such that they are very neutral and so an audience can imprint on them whatever they wish. The piece deals with universal subjects like love, loss and dealing with life. I imagine people might initially see themselves in the puppets, but then as the story develops they are perhaps taken out of themselves and invited to imagine how it might be for someone else. Sympathy and empathy all rolled in to one.
Interview with Josh Elwell
‘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.