On Board The Puppet Theatre Barge
It is a rare thing to be stood inside a long wooden box, half-submerged in water, surrounded by a range of medieval-like figures hanging off the walls, their faces illuminated by warm streaks of light. Yet this is where I found myself, on a clouded Friday morning in Little Venice.
From Burma to Indonesia to Pakistan, the wooden puppets strung up around the barge have travelled from far and wide. I keep imagining their mouths slowly turning into a wry smile on their carved faces, or their legs suddenly beating out an Irish dance, all by themselves. I have to remind myself, I am not in a horror film (though I do keep one eye on them, just in case).
In 1982, puppeteers Gren Middleton and Juliet Rogers decided they wanted to move their puppet theatre touring company, Movingstage, to a more permanent venue of their own. With limited funds to face the expense of London rent for bricks and mortar spaces, they arrived at an unusual solution: to take to the waters and set up their theatre on a barge.
Almost 40 years later, Stan Middleton, the humble grandson of Gren and Juliet, now runs his unusual inheritance, the Puppet Theatre Barge. ‘There’s a magical energy in bringing to life inanimate objects,’ he tells me. ‘If you can bring them to life, then people’s imaginations do the rest of the work.’ It is really the human power of imagination, he says, that has allowed the art of puppetry to endure for so many years.
Indeed, puppetry has been around for a long time. It is older than your grandparents and your grandparents’ grandparents and even older than their grandparents. There’s evidence that puppetry was practised in Ancient Greece. Little puppets made from clay and ivory have also been found in Egyptian tombs. During the Middle Ages in Europe, string puppets would enact stories from the Bible, a useful way of spreading the message to largely illiterate crowds. In London, the earliest puppet plays were recorded from 1600 onwards.
I have little memories of my life before age 7ish, but something that does stand out clearly is the Ladybird hardback of The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. My delight, when I saw this was one of the shows advertised at the Puppet Theatre Barge, was the kind of nostalgic exhilaration that made me feel knee-high again.
‘Animal stories are good; they’re something that really work with puppetry,’ Stan explains. ‘You can do things like fly through the air and swim underwater, or your head can fly off.’ There are regular audience members who came as children, and are now bringing their children to share in the ageless joy of watching these tiny chiselled characters swoop, canter and dive with uncannily realistic movements.
Peeping under a velvet curtain of deep burnt orange, two puppets – a lion and a rabbit – hang suspended in the air, like objects in a museum. They won’t seem that way later tonight, when they spring to life under the puppeteer’s deft fingers. Preserved through generations, these two enchanting creatures were carved by Stan’s grandparents. Stan also makes many puppets, though is not an easy process; making marionettes is a full-time labour of love and developing a new production in full can take 2 whole years of work. It is not a job for the half-hearted or casual practitioner.
Intriguingly, the pandemic was somewhat fortuitous for the Puppet Theatre Barge, having been awarded the Culture Recovery Grant from the Arts Council. ‘It saved us,’ Stan tells me. ‘It’s probably the biggest amount of funding we’ve ever had.’ In this sense, there were positives for the company during the pandemic. The grant, for instance, allowed them to make necessary refurbishments they’d been putting off for years. They were also able to stream performances; a big hit during the first lockdown.
Wandering around the shadowed barge the romanticism of nomadic living feels like a spell I could fall under. The seed is planted for a different way of life I previously couldn’t envision, unshackled from the constraints of a permanent dwelling, no longer subservient to corrupt landlords or noisy neighbours.
On the walls in front of the seating area there are two little hooks to hang hammocks when the barge goes on tour. Some puppeteers might kip here, or else set up camp under the stage, or in the cabins, whilst Stan and his family would stay on a second barge they keep as their home. Side by side, the two barges cruised gently up the Thames, meandering their way through Richmond, Windsor and Marlow before finally arriving in picturesque Oxford, where they used to tour before the world stopped in 2020.
The reality however, isn’t quite as idyllic as I have painted. There are a nefarious assortment of bureaucratic obstacles to overcome. Councils have to know months in advance if you plan to pitch up, and marketing always has to be planned long before. The truth is no one can just roll up on a river bank and set up a show. That spontaneity went centuries ago.
Yet travelling remains part of the soul of the theatre, and there is an antiquated charm in being able to pack it all down and move at will. Stan hopes to continue travelling with the barge in the future, if he can remember how to take down the roof first. After all, it has been nearly 2 years.
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