Reviews for The Table - 2011-2014

     

Fringe First Winner 2011

Guardian's Pick of the Fest 2011

Winner of three awards including the Grand Prix at the Kontrapunkt Festival 2013

One of the top five modern puppet shows, Sunday Telegraph 2013

Chicago Tribune Top 10 Theatre Highlights of 2013

EDINBURGH SPOTLIGHT ****, August 5, 2011
Blind Summit Theatre are performing their puppet show in a time slot traditionally reserved for cabaret and comedy. It’s a daring move when hardened Fringe-goers can be tired and jaded after a day of shows. But Blind Summit’s confidence would appear to be justified as the audience at this preview performance are visibly mesmerised throughout.
The Table is a loosely connected triptych of tales inspired by Beckett and showcasing some truly impressive puppetry.
There is a lot of puppetry on the Fringe, but The Table should be your first stop. Blind Summit are unquestionably the masters of their art.
Julie Dawson

THE SCOTSMAN *****, August 13, 2011
You don't get this in the Underbelly," quips one of the Blind Summit team as a man does a one-armed hand-stand, his bandy legs flailing in the air in body-popping style. Actually, you get quite a lot of that at the Underbelly, just not usually done by a puppet. The man in question is all of two feet high with a cloth body and an angular cardboard head. His voice is a gravely Tommy Cooper-like rasp and he has spent 40 years on top of a table.
The futility of such a limited existence, especially for a man with such noble ambitions, is what connects the show to the work of Samuel Beckett and Jean-Paul Sartre, two of the unexpected names the company credits for inspiration. I'm not saying Waiting For Godot lacks laughs – although I have my doubts about Existentialism And Humanism – but they were never a fraction as funny as this show.
Our dextrous man on the table top has ambitions to give us an "evening of epic puppetry" and a real-time rendition of the last 12 hours in the life of Moses. Operated bunraku-style by three puppeteers, and throwing in a hilarious lesson in the principles of object manipulation, he manages to find himself repeatedly interrupted in his task, not least by a "dramaturgically inconsistent" woman (Sarah Calver) whose silent presence only amplifies his loneliness.
He's an irascible old codger, but there's something in his indefatigability – a very Beckettian "try again, fail again, fail better" philosophy – that makes us feel protective of him. Through the gales of laughter, Blind Summit also makes us care. The sequence is the centrepiece of a three-part show which demonstrates the dazzling inventiveness and breakneck precision of the internationally acclaimed London company. The four performers go on to bring three picture frames to life more magically than the walls of Hogwarts before turning all French on us to reduce a 1968-style crime movie back its individual storyboard cells.
"Acting," said Sartre, "is happy agony." The Table is a good deal happier than that.
.Mark Fisher

TELEGRAPH ****, August 17, 2011
Astonishingly accomplished puppetry from the excellent London-based company Blind Summit, who have previously collaborated with Complicite, English National Opera and the Royal Opera House. Here, we meet a lonely old man desperate for human contact; watch three paintings run amok; and witness a heartbreaking tale told with stick drawings.
Laura Barnett

GUARDIAN ****, August 11, 2011
Puppets can do whatever human actors can do – and much else, besides. After all, most actors don't come with detachable parts. The puppet on the table before us, preparing to perform the last 12 hours of Moses's life in real time, does. He's a Japanese bunraku puppet and the star of Blind Summit's triptych of miniatures exploring the art of "extreme puppetry".
Like Samuel Beckett and Yves Klein, who are cited as influences, this is a show that plays around with form. The final remarkable sequence features only a suitcase and some sheets of paper – a lesson in how to tell a complex crime story with breathless simplicity.
But back to the puppet on the table. This segment isn't so much a show as an existential crisis played out in puppet form, in which the gruff-voiced puppet finds his space invaded by a silent woman who refuses to acknowledge him. It's enough to make him think he doesn't exist, particularly when he's been on the table for 40 years. In fact, it's enough to send him over the edge (of the table), screeching that the woman is "dramaturgically inconsistent". It's a witty and sly take on the world from a puppet's point of view.
Meanwhile, the middle section, in which body parts take on a life of their own in a series of picture frames, reminds me of those pictures that come to life in Harry Potter. With considerable wit, Blind Summit once again prove that when you are working in miniature, you don't have to think small.
Lyn Gardner

THE PUBLIC REVIEWS *****, August 10, 2011
Creating entertainment using only a bare table, and a cardboard puppet is hard work, especially when you have a sell out audience to entertain.
However, Blind Summit Theatre have absolutely no problems with beating this challenge, and the final result is breathtaking. This production is an absolute gem.
Innovative, engaging and at points, surprisingly moving, The Table is a spectacular production, which will stay with you throughout the Fringe, and beyond.
Nathan Shreeve

 

SG MAGAZINE *****, August 13, 2011
What is emerging as the most talked about theatre pieces at the Fringe, Blind Summit Theatre deserve every bit of praise and recognition for ‘The Table’, and more. As ‘puppetry innovators’, they challenge expectations of the artform, and deliver an exquisite display of object manipulation in all 3 sections of the show, each demonstrating a different style of puppetry.
‘The Table’ is an incredibly exciting and awe-inspiring show and I was truly on the edge of my seat throughout. It will continue sell out so beg, borrow or steal a ticket if you have to, just cue early to get a good seat, as the show is so detailed and précised, I imagine the effect would be deconstructed the further back in the auditorium you are
Charlotte Monk-Chipman

WHAT'S ON STAGE ****, August 25, 2011
The Fringe is by no means a stranger to puppetry these days: the art form appears in shows for adults and children, across all the genres in the programme. Rarely, however, is it presented for its own sake, and as delightfully as this.
Jo Caird

BORADWAYBABY.COM ****, August 14, 2011
At times, the Table is breathtaking - people were not only gasping, they were breaking into spontaneous applause. At others, it felt like it might fall apart. The best semi-improvised puppetry is like that though. This is an absolute triumph..
Nancy Napper-Canter

ED FEST MAG ****, August 14, 2012
With delightful interaction between the three puppeteers and the rambling puppet they control, but who seems rather to be in charge of them, this show is full of personality. An astoundingly skillful display of puppetry and physical (puppet) comedy, much of it seems totally improvised – when the feet literally run away with the rest of the body, the others rise to the challenge of keeping up.
Though there were occasional lags, silences and too much repetition in places, for the most part the improv was fantastic, and the skill of the puppeteers, originality of the show, and sheer amount of uproarious laughter from the audience, was undeniable. Intelligent, hilarious, unique!
Hilary White

EXEUNT MAGAZINE *****, August 2011
The company cites its inspiration for the piece as Samuel Beckett and Yves Klein and it’s possible to see those influences at work, but the piece also works on its own terms, it’s an intricate, witty and often astonishing piece that’s as exciting as it is fun to watch.
Natasha Tripney

FRINGE GURU ****, August 13, 2011
The men work calmly as they build life with faultless precision. They are somehow able to create the illusion of spontaneity, despite their every move and the corresponding flicker of marionette muscle being choreographed minutely.
The fact nothing is hidden is what makes it so impossible to look away; even as we are shown exactly how the illusion is produced, the man himself giving us a lecture on the art of puppetry, the magic refuses to fade. The experience insists there is something happening here that is more than the sum of its parts.
Carmel Doohan

FRINGE REVIEW ****, August 15, 2012
The unyielding charm of this piece is obviously in the puppet, as there is nothing else. The gruff voice works perfectly with his sharp angled features, and his spindly limbs seem comically inadequate. From the beginning it is easy to empathize with him as the illusion of a living entity is constantly made, undone and tested in the viewer, but as he states, the trick is in the focus, with it on the puppet alone it is easy for the brain to suspend reality and accept him as temporarily living. Of course, it would not be much of a show if this was not the case, but such is the confidence of the puppeteers that this is played with throughout.
This is a wonderfully simple and beautiful piece of theatre in its own right though I do feel the semi-improvised script felt a little thin and got lost in places, and that more could have been done in terms of action. But the elegance and humour of the puppet is undenied.
Frey Le Maistre

EVENING STANDARD ****, January 13, 2012
Blind Summit's The Table is not strictly speaking, a comedy, but is was one of the funniest shows I saw on the Edinburgh Fringe last year. It now visits Soho as part of the London International Mime Festival. Is it not strictly mime either but it remains one of the funniest hours around. 'Extreme puppetry', the acclaimed company call it. Extremely entertaining I say.
In the longest of three sketches we meet a cardboard-faced figure presenting 'the last 12 hours of Moses's life... on a table'. Or he would if he was not regularly distracted, by doing sexy gyrations, pretending to be French or making one of his trio of black-clad controllers corpse, which may be a puppetry first. There is existential pathos, as his world literally turns upside down, but it is the humour that hits home. The spirit of Tommy Cooper endures in the puppet's barked procrastinations. The other two sections are almost as good. A frenetic visual gag involving framed pictures in which performers and masks blur is expertly executed, while the climax is a filmic story ingeniously told on paper. There is a crash, a chase and an escape.
Revealing more would spoil surprises. Leave any cynicism at home and go. Recommended, no strings attached.
Bruce Dessau

INDEPENDENT ****, January 16, 2012
The latest show from puppet theatre company Blind Summit goes from puppet stand-up to blockbuster movie effects in doodled form. Performed with deadpan precision, The Table is ambitious, unexpected and funny, a lovely opening for the London International Mime Festival.
Zoe Anderson

METRO ****, January 12, 2012
It's probably wrong to fall quite so hard for the charms of a 3ft grump who hails from a long line of boxes, but such was the charisma of The Actor - puppet star of Blind Summit's The Table - that when he made his exit, part of my heart left with him.
For 50 minutes, Blind Summit's trio of skilled puppeteers had worked the Japanese Bunraku style with consummate precision. It takes three puppeteers in plain sight to work a Bunraku creation but the power of the personality they created in The Actor was so strong that 'real people' faded away as the wooden star took centre stage.
Keith Watson

THE GUARDIAN ***, January 13, 2012
Watching their weird and whimsical new show, which opens the London International Mime festival, I couldn't help wishing their undoubted skills were part of a larger narrative, rather than being forced to stand alone: even 70 minutes is quite a long time fore piece of self-referential puppetry. Frankly, I liked the piece best when it betrayed the influence of Tommy Cooper and the National Theatre of Brent. Down's staccato bark echoes that of the great magician, and there is something quite funny about mob puppet's pretensions to epic grandeur and its sending up of rube conventions. As the puppet hero rather haltingly tries On evoke an invisible wall, his chief operator mutters: "We'll get that right soon." I lose my patience only when the puppet becomes a symbol of man's eternal isolation. There are limits to puppetry's power and embodying the absurdity of the human condition is one of them.
Michael Billington

THE GUARDIAN ****, January 2012
Puppetry's not what it used to be amen to that! The capital's luscious International Mime festival is an annual chance for us to exclaim on just how far it's come. This year it's headlined by hit Edinburgh transfer 'The Table', en 85-minute triptych of shorts by the capital's most progressive puppeteers. Blind Summit. It is eye-poppingly skilful — and bizarrely good fun. Beckett meets Tommy Cooper in the most substantial of the three shorts, an existential stand-up routine delivered by a grumpy cockney cardboard-headed puppet, who threatens to perform the last 12 hours of Moses's life on a table but instead leads us and his three creator/operators on a series of very merry tangents. Voiced by Mark Down (and legged and arsed by Nick Barnes and Sean Garrett), this austere and slightly lairy comic creation, operated visibly in the Japanese bunraku style, brings the most angular bounce to the London stage since Patrick Stewart did 'Godot', but offers lot more flexible fun for your buck. The existential angst revs up when a silent, violent woman (Sarah Calver) appears and tries to tip our table-dweller off the edge. It's a deft comment on the humans situation with the roles of puppet and creator nicely mingled and reversed. But, at its most engaging best, this is a mini-masterclass in puppetry, as our anti-hero climbs the invisible 'wall' and does the 'running machine man' he also reveals the tricks of the trade. After puppet man in crisis, there's a trippy dance of disembodied skulls and hands—then a witty lo-fi animated escape story of crime and true love, told in 'la mode Francais' (ie by turtle-necked chain-smoking puppeteers) using only a high organised stack of felt-tip illustrated A4 paper. It's a witty, whimsical coda to a disjointed but hugely inventive showcase for British puppetry. And one that underlines the secret of its nu-folk success: at a time when life is mediated by digital screens, an 'acoustic' live cartoon or handmade creation which shows you how it's manipulated is more than just retro, it's a refreshing January virtual-reality detox.
Caroline McGinn

 

CHICAGO TRIBUNE October 17, 2013
The physical elements of the current spectacular attraction visiting Chicago Shakespeare Theater from the United Kingdom consists of the following: one puppet (hollow cardboard head and cloth body) and one table (rectangular, prosaic). The diminutive puppet, whose name I did not catch but whose killer personality and improvisational chops will long be etched in my consciousness, lives on this table, with occasional excursions into the air, and is manipulated by three noir-clad puppeteers from Blind Summit Theatre. One does the head, one does the hands, one does the feet. That's it. As this caustic, British, Bunraku-style dude dryly notes, no expense was spared this evening. After pointing out the marriage of a British puppet and an all-American table is that famous special relationship writ large, the chatty puppet offers an apology for those dragged to "The Table" blissfully unaware of the circumstances of its attitudinal but dependent star. "If you weren't expecting puppetry or you're not a table enthusiast," he says, while flirting a little, which means thrusting his cloth hips at the women in the front row, "it's going to be a very long evening."
Well, 70 minutes of big laughs. And the politically incorrect puppet, who is shrewdly voiced by Mark Down, also the mover of his noggin, does come with a back story. "I was a box, my family were boxes" he chortles, pointing out the underside of his hollow head and observing — while noting that all he is doing is stating the obvious — that he is not actually alive and that, therefore, this was an absurd line of exploration in the first place. "An aunt was part of a curtain," he says, throwing us all a bone, still laughing at the absurdity of his own dialogue. And thus we have a show about a puppet who knows perfectly well that he is a puppet, a puppet perfectly happy to engage in conversation with his puppeteers and point out that he is nothing without them — a truth he illustrates by persuading them, at one point, to lay him down on the table and clear off, illustrating how he's really little more than a mouthy doll. "The Table," which is a really terrific show, is not to be missed by two distinct groups. One is the puppetry crowd, who'll appreciate the brilliance of this deconstruction of the long tradition of animating inanimate objects on stage and persuading audiences to empathize with their emotional crises about it not being easy to be green, or whatever. The Muppets in the U.S. and the Spitting Image crowd in Britain dared to do a few self-aware gags where puppets might lose their heads of whatnot, but they did not dare talk you through the whole process from the point of view of the puppet. "Are you all right?" this puppet asks the woman, Irena Stratieva, who makes his feet move. "Where have you been?" he asks Sean Garratt, the chap who moves his hands. The two puppeteers smile and nod back at him, even as they make his response possible. The other group, who might not think of going to this show on Navy Pier, is the crowd that likes upscale British comedy of the Eddie Izzard or Ricky Gervais or, gulp!, Russell Brand type. This is very much in that wheelhouse. Come to think of it, Brand would be far funnier as a puppet.
"The Table" is a puppet show for those who hate such arty affairs, even (and here is what makes it so remarkable) as it also manages to be precisely the opposite for those who love them. The puppet is one part British stand-up comic in the classic mode of Ken Dodd ("I can change all my parts, madam, all my parts," says the puppet, addressing those for whom he lusts) and one part Beckettian hero, a man who keeps cheerfully carrying on, as the tea towels say, despite having no control whatsoever over his own movements and full awareness that he is merely a collection of cloth and cardboard. If the puppeteers put him down, there is no puppet reality. This show puts you in mind of such heady matters — I mean, someone could put us down — even as it delivers lusty laughs. More importantly yet, this quite brilliant show explores the nature of empathy as it probes the outer limits of the suspension of disbelief. The puppet leads a demonstration as to how his manipulators are able to make you believe in him (it's mostly a matter of focus and consistency) and yet his personality seems to be able to survive the most brutal and absolute of dismembering. We should all be so lucky, I found myself thinking. This puppet is a player and a survivor, despite the heinous givens of his particular reality. And you have reason to be depressed?
Chris Jones



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Reviews for Low Life - Edinburgh 2005

     

Timeout Critic's Choice - 24.1.06

Short-listed for Total Theatre Award - Edinburgh Fringe 2005

Make My Day, The Metro 8.8.05 - “the ultimate hangover cure”

Today’s Picks, The Guardian 9.8.05 - “Almost your last chance for Blind Summit's wonderful puppets: mad, bad and beautiful in equal measure”

THE GUARDIAN****, Monday August 8, 2005
Puppets, dangerous? So claim Blind Summit, a smart, lively young company bringing real verve to the art form. Their puppets certainly seem to be a bad lot: they drink, smoke and swear, fight and even kill. In one inspired scene, a wrinkled Chinese cleaner takes such umbrage with the book he's reading that he attacks it, stamping the life out of it. "That's a perfect example of the problem," says one of the puppeteers, at once rueful and wry. "Beautiful puppetry leading to book damage."

He's right to describe the show as beautiful. The puppets are exquisite, not least the chiselled Marlene Dietrich lookalike, whose gold velvet gown drapes voluptuously to the floor. And so elegantly, vibrantly choreographed is their animation that they radiate character. We sense the resourcefulness of the tiny puppet in the Mission Impossible sequence, as he clambers over chairs and leaps through the air; we melt at the sight of the businessman barfly, cradling his last beer of the evening as Jacques Brel croons Ne Me Quittes Pas. "Never fall in love with a puppet," Blind Summit advise, but they make it awfully hard not to fall in love with theirs.
Maddy Costa

TIMEOUT*****, Wed Jan 25th, 2006
The Low Life Cabaret is a sleazy down town joint where humans and non humans mingle - you know the sort, I'm sure. It's a bar with stories - not particularly complex stories, it should be admitted, but stories nonetheless - and ones that are brought to quite stunning animated life by the gorgeous puppets of Blind Summit theatre.

The inspiration for the show, we are told, is the writign of Charles Bukowski, Beat poet emeritus and chronicler of the down and out. Thus, the human principals are a barman, a drunk, a manand a dog. The feeling of low end oppression hangs over the tales they tell too, of a thwarted toper, a cleaner who finds escape in a book, an ill fated superhero plumber and a faded actress.

All these characters are represented by puppets, built by Blind Sumit designer Nick Barnes. Beautiful in themselves, they attain a magical grace in the hands of the company. It's partly their multi-jointed realism - check the way the confused drunkard double-takes and clambers around the place, or the pacy, action heroics of the plumber. But such technical meticulousness only provides a base for surreal moments that catch the breath, as when the cleaner takes to the air in inspired fantasy.

The Summiteers play too with the relationship between manipulator and manipulated. The puppeteers don't attempt to hide from sight. Their charges openly acknowledge their presence and purpose. Still, the wooden-tops keep up an aura of autonomy that's oddly fitting with the last chance setting, a dignity in spite of their beaten, slavish status. Perhaps that's what the casat are getting at in the annoyingly Delphic addresses that punctuate the sketches. Perhaps not. Who cares? Great puppets.
Kieron Quirke

THE TIMES***, Tuesday Jan 24, 2006
Puppets let loose amoung the down-and-outs of life
WHAT’S Kevin Spacey doing in a puppet show? The question arises within the first few minutes of Low Life, a co-presentation of the London International Mime Festival. It’s actually not the A-list star who appears in Blind Summit’s production, but a less than life-sized likeness identified only as Kevin.

He’s no Spitting Image-style caricature either. The face bears an intensely ironical expression, accentuated by the furrows alongside the mouth, that is pure Spacey. An alcoholic who mistakes his wife for a dog, Kevin is a character in the handful of vignettes that make up this innovative young company’s freely conceived but tightly executed performance.

Its inspiration was the writings of Charles Bukowski, the American chronicler of down-and-out lives.

So why model a puppet on Spacey? For the fun of it, I suspect, but also for the associations the actor provides. Another puppet resembles Marlene Dietrich. Her name, however, is Mildred. Low Life has a radical twist that has nothing to do with celebrity: the puppets in its loosely linked sketches interact with their four, fully visible human manipulators.

Blind Summit has only begun to scratch the surface of this brilliant idea, but already it is yielding funny (both ha ha and peculiar) rewards.

These include Kevin, desperate for a drink, conspiring with a male puppeteer to retrieve the glass his flesh-and-blood spouse is keeping out of reach, or lonely Mildred ogling her human bartender’s bottom.

The puppets in this dark, postmodern comedy feel, think and even risk their lives. One is a plumber who, like a miniature superhero, runs in slow motion, shimmies down a giant pipe and plunges underwater in the line of duty. Another is a janitor whose broom is replaced by a book. He reacts wholeheartedly to what he reads, sobbing in pain or convulsing in hilarious relief.

Like Kevin and Mildred, these characters are beautifully sculpted and handled. Only a fast, foul-mouthed parody of hard-boiled detective fiction, although amusing, steers Low Life off-course. Too, the underlying theme of addiction might have been more deeply explored. But if you are looking for original and adult entertainment, put this high on your list.
Donald Hutera at BAC, SW11

THE METRO, London***, 25 Jan 06
Stringing us along
Never fall in love with a puppet, advise Blind Summit Theatre, because the puppet cannot love you back. Wise words indeed, because from the looks on the faces of this quartet of puppeteers - and yes, you can see them - prolonged exposure to their wonderfully expressive charges had led to some splintered hearts.

Very loosely based on Charles Bukowski's alcohol-fuelled short stories, Low Life is a series of evocative vignettes involving a selection of puppets ranging from the almost life-sized to the table-top tiny. With impressive skill, the Blind Summit gang quickly takes you to the heart of each story, flipping the mood from gentle nostalgia to frantic farce with manipulative grace.

While each sketch was skilfully realised - with a skit based around a Mission Impossible-style plumber, fuelled on Limp Bizkit, the pick of the bunch - there was precious little to connect the episodes together. Which meant that each time the humans lurched back into the action, and Blind Summit make no effort to be anonymous puppeteers, the illusory spell was broken.

Just how powerful that spell could be was clear in a tear-jerking finale built around the heartbreak of a Kevin Spacey-lookalike bar-room Johnny. To the plangent strains of Jacques Brel's Ne Me Quitte Pas, the puppet truly took on a life of its own as, alone in the dark, he drank himself - and us - into magical oblivion.
Keith Watson

DAILY TELEGRAPH, Monday Jan 30, 2006
Finally, we come to a transfixing show in which "kidult" instincts are given free rein. Blind Summit's Low Life, at BAC, touring after its Mime Festival run, is set in a seedy bar where puppets come to drown their sorrows while darting occasional aggrieved glances up at those who manipulate them.

It's worth seeing just for the alcoholic Kevin Spacey lookalike: in a nod to the latter's performance in The Iceman Cometh, the figurine's impassive, yet infinitely expressive, face turns this way and that, tantalised by a beer tumbler. This diminutive act opens and closes a happy-making hour.
Dominic Cavendish

THE HERALD****, Monday August 22, 2005
Don’t fall in love with a puppet; they can’t love you back. Blind Summit, though, don’t seem to have heeded their own advice.They look as though they’ve fallen, hook, line and sinker.
Take a note of the name. You’ll be hearing lots more from them, yet another from BAC’s Scratch stable. Mark Down, Nick Barnes, Giulia Innocenti and Finn Caldwell are manic puppeteers. That’s to say, they get involved with their charges in a way you’ve never, ever seen before. They seethe, they writhe, they are definitely in an ongoing emotional relationship with their wooden friends.
Low Life, the cabaret, is a mouth-watering appetizer, snatches of moments involving a dole-faced Chinese cleaner devouring the joys of literature, a Kevin Spacey lookalike chasing down the last drink, lost souls in a Raymond Chandler spoof. Ultimately they leave you longing to savour a main course. Catch now.
Carole Woddis

FRINGE REPORT, 29 Jan 06
Blind Sumit Theatre - with a variety of puppets ranging from miniature to almost life-sized - perform a collection of sketches inspired by the short stories and poetry of Charles Bukowski.

Each tale describes visually, with actions, words and music, the lives of the humdrum and good-for-nothing that frequent the same bar. The stories are simple - which allows the puppeteers ample scope to reveal their creativity in unexpected and surreal ways.

Usually, when nothing much happens, an audience can become bored and restless. But here there is freedom to indulge escapism and discover subtle nuances in the puppets' expressions - which unveils hidden extents of character and emotional state.

Within each framework, the puppets create a magical place where the implausible becomes real. A tiny Kevin Spacey lookalike mistakes his girlfriend for a dog (Giulia Innocenti). No attempt is made to conceal the puppeteers - questioning the relationship between puppets and people. It's a refreshing approach to puppetry, and creates a new level of interaction - between puppeteer and puppet.

Detail in figure and face differs in each puppet. As they decrease in detail, their characters have more to say - making up for their lack of physical expression. And the most life-like puppets (especially Mildred the failed West End star) - those which are meticulously crafted - need say nothing at all. Their expressive features do the talking and miraculously change and develop with increasing understanding of the story that is being told.

Man in My Shadow - though filled with South Park wit - drags on. An episode of slow-motion puppets being knocked from limb to limb - which appears in most of the sketches - though highly inventive, seems out of place here.

As a complete performance, Blind Summit brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of Bukowski’s America. Low Life suggests Tom Waits's music, Edward Hopper's painting Nighthawks, and an abundance of other chronicled lonely waifs and placeless folk. There's a concern with intense realness of living, and existential questions of life. Low Life takes these and turns them upside down - contrasting reality with dream-like possibility.
Lara Apponyi

THE STAGE, 23 January 2006
There’s something rather creepy about puppets, which lends them surprisingly well to tales of dissolute deadbeats, lonely drunks and lost freaks in bars.

Maybe it’s the fact that their human, yet not quite human, status makes them fitting representatives of society’s outcasts, those who, like Blind Summit’s various models, take on the world from ankle or knee level.

Inspired by the short stories of American underclass chronicler Charles Bukowski, Low Life offers a cabaret of misfits - from Mildred the chain-smoking, washed-up starlet, to Bud, the miniature plumber, literally drowning in drink - who come to tell their tales to a soundtrack covering Tom Waits and Jacques Brel.

Unlike traditional puppeteers, Blind Summit’s quartet make no attempt to conceal themselves, allowing them to interact with their creations in intriguing ways. These puppets are inclined to turn unexpectedly to stare at their human counterparts, cling suddenly to them, even read aloud to them.

At times all four manipulators work on one character, allowing them to create unsettlingly real movements which are showcased particularly well in slow-motion, filmic sequences. These also provide some of the show’s funniest moments, such as Bud desperately running along a dripping tap to the Mission Impossible soundtrack.

Some of the jokes are dragged out longer than they should be, however, adding to an overall impression that Low Life is somewhat short of material despite its mere one hour running time.

It’s a shame because, with one or two more good ideas and less reliance on easy laughs, this could be a very striking production.
Nuala Calvi

TIMEOUT– All the world’s a stage - August 17, 2005
Devil’s Larder (Gridiron), Children of the Sea (Toby Gogh), An Oak Tree (Tim Crouch), Low Life (Blind Summit)
There is little doubt that the piece (Oak Tree) wouldn’t work were it not for Crouch’s remarkable charisma – something that could also be said for the puppeteers in Low Life, a truly original show at the Smirnoff Underbelly. This is what the Edinburgh festival is about: sitting in a cavern at 10.40 in the morning and watching unknowns blow an audience away with their talent. Film references, music and irony are all deployed with wittily lethal intent. If puppetry is ever to be the new rock’n’roll, these animators might well be its frontmen.
Rachel Halliburton

THE METRO Edinburgh***, 18 August 2005
Inspired by the work of cult author Charles Bukowski, in particular his last novel, Pulp, its themes of destitution and his free-form literary style, Blind Summit’s Low Life is one of the most far out puppetry shows at the Fringe.
The puppets are all hand held, with the puppet-masters almost as much a part of the action. A series of skits looks at what constitutes low life: is the guy who sits at the corner of the bar just a drunk or, in fact, a talented poet with utmost dignity?
It’s an original twist and some scenes are loaded with wry humour and bathos.
The first character, The Cleaner, is the most charismatic, quickly winning affections for its beauty and expression and interacting with it’s masters in a brilliantly comical way.
The two tales of alcoholism feature equally striking puppets but without the same level of depth and subtlety and while Bud is a neat wee action man, he seems slightly superfluous. There is another sketch – In the Reel World – with a much larger cast of mini-models, which is silly fun. Striking more of a lowbrow nerve, it detracts from the serious material but is well executed and provides entertaining comic relief.
Much more dark satirists than traditional puppeteers, Blind Summit will trash what you have come to expect from this art form. Low Life is post modern stuff and, when it succeeds, very exciting stuff too.
Andrew Richardson

ANIMATIONS ONLINE - Edition 15
But how best to describe the Edinburgh Festival Fringe? Here’s a moment to relish: it is 10.30 in the morning and we are in the heart of the Underbelly, an ancient grey-stone building with a seemingly endless number of performance spaces tucked away in its labyrinth of stairs, corridors and caves. One such nook, the Jelly Belly bar, is full of folks queuing to see their first show of the day – a sell-out adult puppetry cabaret piece, set in a bar, which takes its inspiration from the writings of boozy late-Beat poet Charles Bukowski. In Low Life we meet a motley crew of puppet characters – including a Kevin Spacey look-alike who needs just one more drink, a gold-lame clad diva who’s seen it all, and a Chinese cleaner with a penchant for literary criticism. The puppets are beautifully crafted and the sketches delivered very much in the post-Burkett style of intimate interaction between animator and puppet. The master-slave relationship between puppets and humans is played to the max – the puppets croon, confess, cajole, but ultimately they are at the mercy of their operators. The audience are delighted with what they see, and the puppeteers from UK company Blind Summit are treated to rounds of rapturous applause.

“Worth getting up early for” - Mary Caldwell (Finn’s aunt)

"Never thought I'd be laughing one moment and then so moved - watching fucking puppets!" - Jeanne Rathbone

 

 

 


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Reviews for Mr China's Son at The Pleasance 2002
   

Time Out - 20th Feb. 2002
All the best puppet shows tell stories in a way that couldn't matched by live actors; not many, however, achieve the synthesis of narrative and form found in 'Mr China's Son'. It traces the story of He Liyi, a Chinese man whose passion for the English language made him an enemy of Communism, and whose attempts to become a teacher led to imprisonment at the time of the Great Leap Forward. What Blind Summit TC communicate so hauntingly is the idea that the Chinese people became puppets of the revolutionary state, their lives manipulated by Mao. Without the state holding him up, He Liyi crumples, his spirit crushed by innumerable compulsory confessions.

All this might suggest that 'Mr China's Son' is a lugubrious trawl through a familiar tale of suffering under the Communists, but far from it. Directed by Mark Down, it is a remarkable evening, its thrillingly unconventional narrative endlessly darting down witty tangents. Mao, a puny, pudgy, preening puppet, arrives to gabble about 'poisonous weeds' and tea; later we're treated to a 'vague history of China', an irreverent skip through the centuries charting the inventions of silk, kites, fireworks and Potnoodles. Most startling are the set changes, which become cabaret showcases for Ernesto Tomasini's flamboyant singing.

Even more invention goes into manipulating Nick Barnes' beautiful wooden puppets, a task shared by the cast. After a laborious start, their movements become magical, not least when He Liyi swings from a tree to impress a pretty girl, then whispers to his puppeteers to chat her up. This beguiling scene id typical of the company's playfulness, and it's ability to breathe life, not just into the puppets, but into every moment of the play.
Maddy Costa.

What's On London - 20th Feb. 2002
Puppet maker Nick Barnes was inspired to form his company, Blind Summit, when he met He Liyi in China and decided to tell the latter's story using puppets. It's a big story too, encompassing many decades and great changes in the Chinese cultural and political landscape. It's ideally suited to a mixture of live action and puppetry, which can create a sense of the epic through shifts in visual perspectives and by harnessing traditional forms of visual story telling.

Liyi's story begins when, as a child, his policeman father, along with other landlords is murdered - but not before he has installed a love of learning and language in his young son, who becomes a willing and successful student of English. With the rise of communism, such a passion becomes dangerous, and fate and China's new rulers impose all kinds of cruelty on our hero, separating him from the woman he loves and denying him outlets for his beloved language. When China opens up again to western influences, the BBC World Service becomes a passion and, in his later years, he is accepted on their summer course in London.

The company's motto is "Blind Summit Theatre = beautiful puppets + amazing stories". This is indeed an extraordinary story of courage and fortitude, and the puppets are very beautiful - but the team have yet to pull the two elements together into a satisfying piece of theatre. The evening holds many delights - the potted, idiot's guide to Chinese history, for instance, played out by tiny blue puppets amongst a huge polystyrene landscape is fast, moving, informative and witty. And I loved it when a tiny, bad tempered Chairman Mao arrived in Hampstead in a parcel from China.

...There's enough too suggest that.. the company will be a very exciting concern indeed.
Philip Chapman.

Reviewsgate.com - 17th February
Blind Summit make surprisingly moving drama from a source off the beaten track.

After this show, bad acting should never be called wooden. Whether the model characters in Mr China's Son are wood or plastic they give extremely expressive performances.

They have help ­ up to four black-garbed humans moving their limbs and neck. But the immense impact lies in the figures' emotional neutrality. A human actor would use their personality to seek out emotional responses from the audience. Here the operators are focused entirely on the technique of correctly moving their character-figure.

And that figure is dead material, moving because it evokes feeling in the audience through imitation. We are not responding to a person; the force of the situation arises through our direct response, and is stronger for it.

The story's based on a real life. Framed by an Englishman's letters to his girlfriend, it tells the story of 70 year old He Liyi; as an intelligent youth he was caught up in the Communist and Cultural Revolutions. Witnessing his father's execution, separated from women he loved, forced to confess his errors before the Red Guard, imprisoned ­ before finally being free to do the job he loved, teaching English. In which capacity he wrote a simple letter for assistance to the BBC. And, now running a backpackers' café, he meets people such as the letter writer.

At times the piece falls into the devised and visual theatre trap of discursiveness. A rough guide to Chinese history is fun, and ends with a spectacular model building of the Yanz-tze dam, but it is a diversion from the main point. Yet the piece scores high for its intensely beautiful sections; He Liyi playfully cavorts with his (human actor) father until a shot rings out. The 'father' lies still, then, out of role, the actor moves from under his son, leaving the figure lost in mid-air, a poignant, sudden image of childhood loss.

Or there's the operators apparent struggle with the He Liyi figure as he's dragged off to jail; following his public self-denunciation. Moments like these show a silent figure can speak volumes.

Total Theatre Review - Volume 14, issue 2 - Summer 2002
An old man from China (a puppet) sits at a table to write; he is attended by three puppeteer-performers who, with three other players, present the old man's life story from his boyhood in China to his old age in England. He is a modest man who lives in the time of the Cultural Revolution, so many things do not go smoothly for him, and he has to wait until middle age for his dream of becoming an English teacher to come true.

The narrative is told through other puppets (with Charlie Llewellyn Smith as chief puppeteer), some human characters and with occasional interruptions be a performer narrator. This colourful personage I took to be an incarnation of China's traditional Peking Opera past, judging by his dress and make up, but not by his demeanour, which was camp, strident and consciously 'comic'. He seemed to have wandered in from another show, and offered a surprising, if deliberate, contrast to the realistic behaviour of the puppets. The idea was good, but would have worked better in true Peking Opera style. Other comic episodes came from a midget Chairman Mao (when did China or indeed anywhere ever regard him as diminished or insignificant?) and an illustrated 'Vague History of China" which skated over the country's last 50 years or so, including the not obviously amusing Cultural Revolution.

The show was directed by Mark Down and cleverly designed by Nick Barnes with some lovely moving moments of puppetry, but it did not hang together as a whole, and needed the attention of a good dramaturg. There seemed to be a compulsion to search for the easy laugh which sometimes jarred, interrupting the flow of the tender narrative. However, with the undoubted merits of the basic story, the design and the puppets, it would be a shame not to sontinue to develop "Mr China's Son". Even in this form, it was an impressive achievement.
Penny Francis

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Reviews for Madam Butterfly - London 2005

   

WINNER Olivier Award for Best New Opera 2005

EVENING STANDARD – 7th November
Barry Millington

OSCAR-WINNING film director Anthony Minghella’s first shot at opera would have been of interest even if it had been obscure Leoncavallo. The fact that the ENO invited him to make his debut with Puccini’s Madam Butterfly ensured it was one of the hottest tickets in town.

What Minghella has done, working with his wife Carolyn Choa as associate director and choreographer, and with Michael Levine as designer, is to marry his genius for arresting cinematic images with the language of traditional Japanese theatre to create a truly spectacular production.

Elaborations of a vast, Oriental, black lacquered box, exquisite water effects with the silks, and Habitat lanterns transformed into glowing fireflies, are among the magical coups de theatre. A huge mirror a the rear of the stage multiplies the already riotous profusion of colours and shapes. Sometimes it reveals the concealed, as when we glimpse Butterfly and Suzuki sleeping after their vigil while Pinkerton, his new wife and the consul colonise the front of the stage.

At other times it opens up a breathtaking perspective: when Butterfly commits suicide at the other end, her blood pours out in the form of red silks streaming to all corners of the stage.

Most daringly of all, Butterfly’s young child is represented as a puppet in the Bunraku tradition, worked by three visible black-clothed operatives (Blind Summit Theatre). The pathos of the blindfolded puppet-boy prior to his mother’s suicide, taking faltering steps, is overwhelming. Elsewhere, a puppet of Butterfly herself touchingly beseeches a dancer, presumably representing Pinkerton, while white birds flutter enchantingly on sticks.

If only the musical values matched this sumptuous visual spectacle, the show would be unbeatable. The diminutive Mary Plazas has the figure for a 15-year-old geisha and sings Butterfly with attractive tone and finely controlled line. But neither she nor Gwyn Hughes Jones, for all his callous swagger as Pinkerton, really hits the mark when it matters. David Parry’s conducting (he also provided the translation, which is projected clearly) is strong on detail and bustle, but rarely raises the temperature to rapturous levels.

Christopher Purves is impressive as a sympathetic Sharpless, as is Jean Rigby as Suzuki. Other subsidiary roles, including Alan Oke as Goro, Mark Stone as Yamadori and Stephanie Marshall as Kate Pinkerton, are well taken.

With luck, the interaction of the music, drama and spectacle will increase in potency as the production beds down. Don’t miss any opportunity to see this visual feast, either now or when it returns in April.

THE INDEPENDENT
Butterfly takes wondrous flight
By Edward Seckerson
Published: 07 November 2005

Anthony Minghella steals a march on even Puccini, ravishing the senses before so much as a note of the score has sounded. His much-anticipated staging of Madam Butterfly begins in stunning silence.

A young Japanese bride - a prototype of Butterfly herself - slowly appears over the distant horizon and makes her way downstage trailing crimson sashes from her kimono. A rising mirror lends infinite depth and breathtaking aerial perspectives. Shadowy figures, veiled in black as if already in mourning, bind her waist in preparation for the wedding. The ritual complete, Puccini at last does for the ear what Minghella has already done for the eye.

One might have expected this most refined and seductive of film-makers to have graced the Coliseum stage with a series of beautiful images. What one hadn't expected was his total command of that stage, his thorough appreciation of what makes opera fill it.

This Butterfly is at once the simplest and most sumptuous thing we've ever seen in this theatre. It is the meeting of Japanese kabuki and Western opera but shot through with the expensive air and finely tuned manner of a Broadway show. When Butterfly's wedding party arrives, it too rises over a turquoise horizon and processes downstage as if seen through a shimmering heat haze.

The voluptuous colours of Han Feng's costumes, Peter Mumford's high-tech lighting, and Michael Levine's floating mirror conspire to amaze. The inevitable shower of cherry blossom and corridors of lanterns lead Butterfly gently and seductively to the bedchamber. The imagery almost succeeds in out Puccini-ing Puccini.
And yet there is heart and soul and real dramatic awareness at work here. The opening of Act Two wrong-foots us with a short-lived scene of marital bliss as Butterfly serves tea to her adoring husband. It's a scene you imagine she replays daily. But like everything else in her rapidly crumbling world, it's a delusion. The husband retreats, along with the exquisite furniture, and she's left with what might have become his favourite armchair - and his son, "Sorrow".

It is here that the boldest and most controversial aspect of Minghella's staging - his use of puppetry - comes into its own. Instead of a child, three wonderful puppeteers breathe tangible life into a little Japanese doll in a sailor suit. The physical detail, the restless, excitable, mother-clinging actions and reactions are such that a child actor could never give us and after a while you stop noticing the puppeteers and, like Butterfly, you see only genuine emotion and need in the impassive doll-face.

This is extraordinary. And it is a measure of Mary Plazas' touching performance in the title role that she too makes the puppet real for us. We begin to see and feel the world through her sensibilities. Plazas may not possess what many believe to be the ideal Butterfly voice. Though big and vibrant for her tiny frame, the reach of the big phrases and the vocal reserves necessary to fill and fully extend them is not always quite within her grasp. But she is a musician through and through and her wealth of experience brings much that is personal and touching, not least the way end cadences melt away, now hopeful, now hopeless.

Gwyn Hughes Jones (Pinkerton) got a couple of what I'm assuming were pantomime boos at the curtain call but though dry and a little shallow of tone, he delivered. Jean Rigby was a seasoned Suzuki, noble in her final indignation, and Christopher Perves was ringingly compassionate as the US Consul, Sharpless.

But the power and majesty of the evening belonged to Minghella and his associate director/choreographer Carolyn Choa. The final long-shot of Butterfly, the crimson sashes spilling from her body like her very life-blood, is one of many images that will be selling a lot of tickets for ENO in the months ahead.

WALL STREET JOURNAL (Europe)
‘Madam Butterfly’ soars
Paul Levy, 11.11.05

The opera debut of film director Anthony Minghella, a new English National Opera production of Puccini’s “Madam Butterfly” is sensational –one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen staged. Conductor David Parry has made a new translation, and the greatest achievement of Mary Plazas (the tiny soprano who was born to sing Butterfly), Christopher Purves and Gwyn Hughs Jones (Pinkerton, the callous American naval Officer) is that you can hear most of his work sin the huge Coliseum. Though Mr Jones is wooden, the first two act their hearts out – abundant tears flow geisha who thinks she is married to the American realises she has been abandoned and commits ritual suicide at the opera’s end.

Mr Minghella’s finest touch is to turn the child of Butterfly and Pinkerton into a Bunraku puppet, operated - as is traditional – by three visible, but totally self effacing puppeteers (the superb Blind Summit company), and far more expressive than any child actor. A Japanese-set opera is a gift to any costume designer, but Han Feng jubilantly seizes the opportunity to garb the cast in kimonos and court dress, and collaborates so gorgeously with Michael Levine (who has put a tilted mirrored surface the entire length of the rear of the stage so that we see almost everything doubled) that it is hard to decide whether the long streaming scarves that emanate from the characters’ sleeves and waists count as costumes or scenery.

TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT online
London Coliseum
English National Opera
05 Nov - 13 Dec 2005

If proof were needed for the proposition that direction and staging can transform even a classic of the repertoire into something higher, better, more lucent and ravishing than it already is, this brilliant production of 'Madame Butterfly' is it. A vulnerable and delicate Butterfly with a thrilling voice, such as Mary Plazas gives us here, would make any production special: but add the imaginative talent that underlies this production's design, lighting and direction, and the result defies superlatives.

With the overture a great rectangle of dawn-red light opens at the back of a sweepingly spare ENO stage, and a representation of Madame Butterfly appears on the horizon of the metallic slope that rises towards the rear, trailing long prophetic crimson banners of what, at the end, become the streams of blood of her suicide. She dances with fans, then disappears magically behind the sliding screens of the house that Pinkerton has bought for his fifteen-year-old mock bride, just as Pinkerton and Sharpless appear to admire it.

The power of this opening statement becomes apparent as the drama unfolds. The great love duet that closes the first act has added poignancy in this production, because Anthony Minghella's superbly intelligent theatrical direction has made salient every possibility of its emotional significance and profound eroticism; whereas in so many other productions the first act's close is a considerably lesser denouement than that wrought by Pinkerton's distant repeated cry of 'Butterfly!' at the very end. Here the drama has two towering, soul-wrenching nodes, as Puccini surely intended. The combination of Mary Plazas' instinctive occupancy of the role and Minghella's direction makes her a memorable Cio-Cio-san. She becomes Butterfly; and Butterfly ‚ for it is she, not someone playing her ‚ quivers with an intensity of passion so believable and painful that the tragedy of the tale infuses the whole, even from the first moment of her happy appearance with the wedding party.

The way this Butterfly is staged makes one hear the music anew: that is a wonderful achievement. Every nuance of the way the score tells the story, explores its emotional content, warns, predicts, elevates and astonishes, is increased by this staging. The beautifully effective lighting, which itself catches and colours the mood and meaning of the action, and the stroke of genius in using a puppet for Butterfly's child (expertly and vividly worked by a team of no fewer than three puppeteers), add and add again to the sheer brilliance of the conception.

This is by some distance the finest and most imaginative production of 'Madame Butterfly' this reviewer has ever seen. Although the phrase is worn, it really does apply here: it is unmissable.
AC Grayling

THE DAILY MAIL
David Gillard, 2 Dec 05
Minghella pulls the right strings

East meets West in the Oriental culture clash at the breaking heart of Puccini's perennial tear-jerker. And two theatrical cultures also mingle - and occasionally clash in Anthony Minghella's wonderfully inventive new production for English National Opera.

Minghella is already an Oscar winning film director and noted writer but he proves here, in his first opera production, that the lyric stage is very much his medium.

And he adds a new twist to this often cliched tale of betrayal and blighted love. With his wife Carolyn Choa as associate director and choreographer, he cleverly incorporates elements of Bunraku, the Japanese puppet theatre, into this sentimental slice of Italian verismo. The resilt is occasionally jarring but always vivdly theatrical - insiteful and challenging.

Black-clad, black masked figures slink like phantoms through Michael Levine's skeletal, mirror backed set, doubling and trebling as Butterfly's servants, sliding screen pushers and fan-swishing, scarf-swirling extras.

But the most extraordinary part of Minghella's daring concept is to use a Bunraku-style puppet as Butterfly's lovechild, Sorrow.

Blending stylised Japanese illusion with realistic operatic melodrama is a huge gamble, especially as the two amazing puppeteers (Mark Down and Nick Barnes) are always in sight, though draped and gauzed in black.

But the gamble often pays off. The puppet Sorrow takes on a spooky life of its own - quite chilling at times. As wooden performances go, this one is masterly.

There are some decent flesh-and-blood performances too. The Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones finally brings humanity as well as lechery to that imperiallist cad Lieutenant Pinkerton, while Jean Rigby makes a sympathetic Suzuki and Christopher Purves is convincingly bewildered as the US consul Sharpless.

At the centre of it all is Mary Plazas' diminutive Butterfly. Here's one soprano who could actually pass for a 15 year old geisha, her tiny frame belying a strong and secure voice.

She looks no more than a fragile child against Hughes Jones's bear like Pinkerton. But when the vulnerable child-bride becomes a deserted single parent, Miss Plazas finds both steely maturity and compassionate nobility.

Conductor David Parry gets all the emotional swell from Puccini's gushingly melodic score and provides a lucid new English translation too. But this will ultimately be remembered as the night Minghella pulled the strings.

FINANCIAL TIMES
Madam Butterfly English National Opera London
By ANDREW CLARK
Published: November 7 2005 02:00

The first thing to say about English National Opera's new Puccini production is that it is stunningly pretty. The second thing to say is that, well, it is stunningly pretty. And the third thing . . .

Forget the opera - admire the stage pictures. This Butterfly is so visually entrancing it doesn't really matter what the story is about or whether it touches the heart. From first note to last, the eyes have it. In that respect, ENO got what it bargained for. It engaged an internationally renowned film director with no record in opera, matched him to a designer who could cover up the director's inexperience and in so doing managed what every opera company dreams about but rarely achieves: it got people talking. And they talked enough to get Anthony Minghella, the director in question, on the BBC 10 o'clock news the night before the opening. The result: a virtual sell-out for the 11-performance run (don't worry, there are another eight in April).

No one can possibly go away feeling short-changed - unless, of course, you enter the theatre hoping for serious engagement with the ideas and emotions of sexual victim-hood and cultural rape, the very stuff of Madam Butterfly. By obsessing themselves with the decorative aesthetics of Japan and using Puccini's score as a soundtrack, Minghella and his design team subvert and sidestep the realities. They do not ask us to respond viscerally, as every great production of the past has done, including ENO's previous staging. Minghella actually has nothing to say about Butterfly except that it lends itself to pretty stage pictures and cod-Japanese gestures.

So let's give the designer, Michael Levine, his due: there has never been a Butterfly that seduces its audience with images of such sophisticated beauty as this. It has little to do with the costumes (by Han Feng), which look like a parade of pre-20th century replicas. No, it's more the way Levine blends colour, lighting and visual symbol to conjure a Japan of the senses, delicate, fragrant and harmonious. That is as evident in the luminous horizon, from which most of the characters arrive in silhouette, as it is in the way flowers, birds, moon and blood are poetically represented.

And the beauty of it is that Levine and his lighting designer, Peter Mumford, never cover up the mechanics of theatre. They don't need to because, with screens, overhead mirror and side-spots, the stage is composed in the same way an artist deploys paint on canvas - by appealing to our aesthetic sensibility. This strain of imaginative artificiality is intensified by choreographic flights and Japanese puppetry - the latter to portray Butterfly's child. The animation is so well achieved by veiled but perfectly visible puppeteers that the puppets are easily the most authentic characters on stage.

How much more daring - and less gimmicky - if Minghella and Levine had taken the device to its conclusion and portrayed everyone as puppets, because Mary Plazas' Butterfly and the other singers belong in a different, more traditionally operatic show. Their decorative function at least enables David Parry's new translation to be heard. Plazas' diminutive physique distinguishes her from most interpreters of the title role, and on Saturday she seemed unfazed by its vocal demands. Gwyn Hughes Jones is the serviceable Pinkerton, Christopher Purves an excellent Sharpless. Parry hurries the score along and draws fine playing from the ENO orchestra. The production is to be shared with New York's Metropolitan Opera and the Lithuanian National Opera.

ANIMATIONS ONLINE - Edition 15
Reviewed by Dorothy Max Prior
Opera, in theory, provides a wonderful opportunity for the creation of a piece of ‘total theatre’ - a potential for the merge of music and visual theatre into one fantastic whole. The ENO’s Madam Butterfly achieves that totality (to use a fashionable word), the irony being that it is a film director (Anthony Minghella) rather than a theatre-maker who brings it all together. But of course to those familiar with the mores of visual theatre that isn’t that surprising, as after all what is visual theatre if it isn’t a series of moving pictures?

And what beautiful pictures! A wave of geishas appearing over the horizon, clad in poppy red, fuchsia, turquoise, their gorgeous forms and colours reflected in the enormous angled mirror over the stage (which reminds me of Lepage’s Far Side of the Moon – perhaps he should have beat Minghella to it and cannibalised his own ideas for his recent opera direction debut at the Royal Opera House?). A series of screens that slide open and shut, creating rooms and chambers, the secrets they conceal revealed by the mirror. Lanterns dancing on rods, like a family of moons in the night sky. Trails of billowing red silk representing a river of blood in the death scene. I could go on – in purely visual terms, it is one of the most sumptuously stunning stage presentations I have witnessed.

The performances are melodramatic rather than dramatic – how much of this is an intentional nod to Japanese theatre traditions and how much the inevitability of working within a form in which intensely emotional dialogue is all sung is hard for me to say, with my limited experience of live opera, and I would find it hard to comment with authority on the interpretation of Puccini’s music – but it sounded wonderful to my ears.

Which brings us to the reason for an opera review in Animations! In a decision that caused consternation to some opera fans and critics, Minghella decided to bring in a company of puppeteers to create some of the characters in the production – most crucially, Butterfly’s young son. The decision to use up-and-coming company Blind Summit (founded by Nick Barnes and Mark Down) was one that paid off. The puppets are beautifully crafted, the animation absolutely spot-on. The child-puppet, far from wooden, seems more real than the human characters; his every gesture nervously delicate, the jumpy puppy-dog energy of a young boy captured perfectly. Whenever he is on stage, our attention is drawn to him. Miraculously, his tiny gestures of hands and feet are not lost in the vast space that is the Coliseum stage – this surely due to the skills of the puppeteers, who are visible and clad in traditional masked black outfits. One lovely touch in the overall vision and direction of the piece is the way in which the puppeteers’ dress is echoed in the chorus of similarly clad performers who move screens or carry lanterns. As befits a story in which the tragic outcome is known by the audience before the show even starts, this gives a sense of the whole production as a story that is being engineered from the outside by the unseen powers of fate or the gods.

Madam Butterfly’s theatrically excessive death scene is counter-balanced beautifully by the sight of the small and frightened-looking, boy-puppet, blindfolded so he cannot see what the audience is witnessing. Once again, we are shown that a puppet can be the vessel for the main emotional thrust of the production, reaching hearts that might otherwise be too overcome by spectacle to respond to the core tragedy of the story.

And we cannot end without a mention of the very end. Do these people know how to take curtain calls! This becomes a whole extra scene in itself as waves of people flow to the front to take bow after bow. And there, right at the end, side-by-side with the Prima Donna is the wonderful boy-puppet, accompanied by the puppeteers of Blind Summit, who remove their masks to tumultuous applause. This is the moment that British puppetry has been waiting for, as rising stars of the artform are not only asked to participate in the creating of a major work, but also stand acknowledged in one of the high temples of live performance, the Coliseum.

TOTAL THEATRE
David Harridine

Going to the Coliseum – London’s second big opera house – to review Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in a new staging by film director Anthony Minghella. Not a usual kind of night out for me. Note to self: try to imagine yourself as an opera goer, not a theatre maker. Try to watch, to listen, for the music and the singing first, for the acting and the staging second. Don’t get snagged up on your desire for truthfulness, for honesty. Opera is all about artifice (people don’t generally sing their way through a conversation). Opera is all about music: the voice becomes a huge and powerful instrument and the singer’s body is primarily a source of sound, not a site of acting. Fact is though, truth: it’s what I want. I want to really feel it, to believe in the tragedy of the story; I want some kernel of believability to rise to the surface through the many layers of theatrical fakery, narrative convention and musical formalism that make an opera what it is. I want to connect. But when there’s a (very late) thirty-something English woman playing a 15-year-old Japanese geisha, a lot of ladies in remarkable kimonos doing ENO chorus shenanigans, and some very ropy acting all round, there’s not really anything believable to be found. And then the puppets come in.

In what has proved to be a controversial move, dividing seasoned opera goers and critics alike, Minghella has replaced several characters in this production with puppets – beautifully made by Nick Barnes and brilliantly animated by members of Blind Summit Theatre, which Barnes set up with Mark Down in 1997. It’s long overdue, but this high profile, high risk, high art arrival by a company that’s been chipping away at the coalface of conventional puppetry for years is a deserved leap into the big league. Of all the puppets, by far the most important is the one playing Butterfly’s son. This puppet-child is so alive, so real, so full of the wriggly energy and inquisitiveness of a three-year-old boy that he not only steals every scene he’s in, but also somehow manages to transform the otherwise average acting of Butterfly and Suzuki, her servant, into something that finally feels connected, emotional and true. It’s a testament to Blind Summit’s skill that the most totally fake thing in the production – a resin puppet standing in for a flesh-and-blood boy – not only captures the sprit of a real child, but also becomes the most believable actor in the cast.

There was always a risk for Blind Summit in this project. Moving from studio work into the cavern of the Coliseum, the puppets themselves could have become lost. And with Michael Levine’s set to contend with (beautiful: a huge angled mirror to reveal what would otherwise be hidden behind a series of tightly choreographed sliding screens; a snowfall of cherry blossom; paper lanterns floating in the black space like moons and stars), there are plenty of things to consume them. But the boy puppet in particular defeats these threats through the simple magic of an inanimate form being so miraculously brought to life. At the centre of the tragedy of Butterfly’s story, this puppet leads us to heartbreaking moments: the boy sniffing a flower, unaware of his fate; a twitching foot as he falls asleep; lost and frightened, blindfolded, as his mother kills herself. Heartbreaking moments, which soar across Puccini’s music, across the striking design, across the huge space between the stage and the audience, and become the beating, shattered, true heart of the piece. And if that’s controversial, so much the better. Blind Summit Theatre has worked long and hard for the chance to bring some controversy to the big stage. And in their own quiet way, they’ve taken the big stage and brought it down to puppet size.

THE NATION (Thailand)
Jonathan Richmond

The puppet's blank face, a screen for the audience to project their most private thoughts, reflected a million emotions.

Puppetry of a type that will be familiar to the audiences of the Joe Louis troupe in Bangkok was brought in to Anthony Minghella and Carolyn Choa's innovative production of Puccini's "Madam Butterfly" for English National Opera (in a joint production with the Metropolitan Opera of New York and Lithuanian Opera) to add a special piquancy to the opera's tragic tale.

Butterfly's son, the product of an affair with Pinkerton, an American visiting Japan, was represented by a puppet. The puppet has two handlers as in Joe Louis presentations.

The Blind Summit Theatre supplied puppet handlers able to make the puppet move in lifelike ways. Its detailed movements were captivating at times, but they served principally to underline the tragedy of a boy whose father has run off, and whose mother is to die.

If the movements of the puppet represented life, its lifeless face was of a child already half-dead. It reflected the inevitability of fate, the loss of identity of a child blinded by tragedy.

Towards the end, we were also presented with a puppet of Butterfly, representing one whose existence can only be defined by others. Even Butterfly's suicide was defined in terms of the need to meet the requirements of others -- so that the boy can relate to Pinkerton's wife -- who takes him away to America.

The puppetry was on a level of genius, and the London production of "Butterfly" was spectacula. The lighting by Peter Mumford creates effects both dazzling and intimate.

The bad news is that the musical side was neglected. Most of the singing was bland. Butterfly (Mary Plazas) failed to engage the intense emotions of the opera and Pinkerton (Gwyn Hughes Jones)
was boring.

The orchestra, conducted by David Parry, might as well have been playing elevator music -- Puccini's fire was completely washed out.

Still, the use of Asian puppetry techniques elevated a European art form to new levels. So by all means attend if you are in London before December 9. Alternatively, look out for the Metroplitan Opera performances, which are likely to have a cast of a higher caliber.

THE STAGE
David Blewitt
Monday 7 November 2005 04:35 PM

The wildly enthusiastic first-night reception of ENO’s new Butterfly confirms a palpable hit for the company. It is probably the most sheerly beautiful staging I have ever encountered.

Peter Mumford’s expressive, subtly evocative lighting is both prescient messenger of Butterfly’s fate and chronicler of the emotionally charged subtext. Michael Levine’s moving screens allow action to flow; his wide, rear up-curving floor space enables Anthony Minghella and Carolyn Choa to compose ravishing, emblematic stage pictures.

Deftly handled Bunraku puppets represent Butterfly’s household, her child Sorrow, and the teenage geisha herself in a thought sequence accompanying the waiting Intermezzo (Act II, Part 2).

In a recent Radio 4 interview, Anthony Minghella seemed to define his directing role as non-interventionist. Certainly, the treatment of the main protagonists is conventional, the odd telling detail excepted.
It is the exceptional cast which provides any genuine insights: Alan Oke’s Goro, the professional marriage-broker, Jean Rigby’s concerned, warm-hearted and loyal Suzuki. Christopher Purves limns a sympathetic Sharpless. Sadly, the wooden Pinkerton belting out the music remains a total cipher.

Mary Plazas’ Butterfly is extraordinary, the tiny figure disturbingly highlighting the story’s more perverse aspects. She judges superbly the delicate balance between resolve and vulnerability, never plays victim. Vocally, she husbands her resources skilfully never to compromise the power of the ‘spinto’ vocal lines.
However the highly stylized, albeit ravishing, staging renders Butterfly a mere puppet, her exquisitely choreographed death exemplifying the triumph of image over emotion. It is as visually stunning as it is unmoving. David Parry conducts efficiently.

THE GUARDIAN
Tom Service
Monday November 7, 2005

Anyone expecting images of cinematic brilliance from Anthony Minghella's new production of Puccini's Madam Butterfly for English National Opera will not be disappointed. He stages the end of the first act, the love duet between Mary Plazas's frail Butterfly and Gwyn Hughes Jones's passionate Pinkerton, as an elaborate ballet with Japanese lanterns and an entire orchard of pink cherry blossom. It's an image worthy of the hype that has surrounded Minghella's debut as an opera director.

Framed by Michael Levine's austere, sloping set, Minghella signals his priority to create spectacular visuals right from the start. Before the music begins, a geisha girl becomes the plaything of four masked dancers, caught by a sheet of red cloth. Above the stage, a huge mirror allows the audience to see behind the sets, illuminating usually invisible parts of the drama, like Butterfly's distress before she appears to confront Pinkerton's wife.
However, for all the subtleties of Peter Mumford's lighting and the colouristic riot of fashion designer Han Feng's costumes, this production will be remembered for its puppets. Butterfly's son is played by a Japanese Bunraku puppet, operated by three masked men. There are moments when the brilliance of their manipulation manages to convince you that this wooden doll is a living thing, but for the most part it is impossible to suspend disbelief. Instead of focusing on Plazas's Butterfly and Jean Rigby's Suzuki as they bedeck the house with flowers to prepare for Pinkerton's return, you're gripped by watching the weird movements of this puppet-boy.
Minghella draws parallels between puppetry and Butterfly's predicament. She is trapped by the social conventions of Japanese society, by her unquestioning love for the worthless Pinkerton, and by her doomed faith that he will come back. But Minghella and Plazas create a Butterfly who, however scrupulously observed in terms of Japanese ritual and convention, never comes fully alive, just like the wooden doll. The love duet in the first act looks beautiful but it is expressively and emotionally empty, because you don't believe that the tiny, fragile girl who has just signed her life away with Pinkerton could really be capable of such explosive emotions.
David Parry, who provides a new translation and conducts the ENO orchestra, tries to conjure some magic in the pit, but even he can't induce passion. Only Christopher Purves's Sharpless is a fully convincing creation, racked with guilt at having to tell Butterfly that Pinkerton may not return, and appalled by Pinkerton's cowardice in the final scene. Plazas commits ritual suicide surrounded by the masked dancers and puppeteers, turning Puccini's personal tragedy into a communal, shared experience. It's bold because it shifts the emphasis of the drama on to Butterfly's turf: instead of the troubling politics of Puccini's orientalised music, Minghella's production turns the end of the piece into a metaphor for the mistakes of American imperialism. But by imposing such authentically Japanese imagery on to Madam Butterfly, the production swamps the opera with an interpretation it can't really sustain. Without a really believable Butterfly, the production's cinematic style suffocates Puccini's musical and dramatic substance.

DAILY TELEGRAPH - 8th Nov 05
Glossy triumph of empty style
(Filed: 07/11/2005)

Rupert Christiansen reviews Madam Butterfly at the Coliseum
Being a great admirer of his films, I had high hopes of the director Anthony Minghella's first foray into opera. And how can anyone seriously fail with a drama as hard-hitting as Puccini's Madam Butterfly, one of the most culturally influential masterpieces of the 20th-century?

Mary Plazas's performance reminds us that Butterfly is a human being, but the result sadly disappointed me. I can't say that Minghella has boobed, because what he presents at the London Coliseum is glamorously designed and meticulously rehearsed, and audiences who want their opera to be nothing more than a lavish floorshow with musical accompaniment will doubtless enjoy a splendid night out. (The production moves on to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where I imagine it will be a big crowd-puller.)

Yet I hated pretty much every second. Minghella's concept eviscerates the heart and soul of the work, chucking out its emotional reality and stuffing it instead with catwalk chic. It ignores the specific historical context that fascinated the composer and his librettist and their literary sources: the port of Nagasaki in the later 19th century, at a time when American trade was beginning to corrode the rigidly feudal and isolationist society of imperial Japan.

What Minghella sees isn't a critique of colonialism or psychological obsessiveness, but an elegant exercise in Japonaiserie. The staging is framed and coloured by the devices of Asian theatre. A choreographed dumb show prefaces each act (the second act being divided).

Michael Levine has designed a lacquered platform, curving up towards the rear, on to which minimalist screens and props are rolled by stagehands clad in black. There's no sense of the life of Nagasaki: this is pure fantasy theatre.

Butterfly's child Trouble is represented by a doll, handled (exquisitely, it must be said) by masked manipulators in the manner of Bunraku.

This sort of stylisation may work very well when applied to the deliberate pantomime of Turandot, but it doesn't illuminate the thoroughly Western compassion and complexity of Madam Butterfly. Minghella's version looks very pretty and Han Feng's costumes are ravishing, but it means nothing.

Somehow Mary Plazas transcends the vacuity of the spectacle and reminds us that Butterfly is a human being. The role is much too long and big for her petite frame and lyric soprano - the strain told at climaxes - but she is a lovely singer, who imbued every note with feeling and an instinctively musical shape.
Her Pinkerton, Gwyn Hughes Jones, sang with clarion tone, but the character remained a total blank, without even some roguish sexiness to redeem him. That excellent baritone Christopher Purves was a strong Sharpless, Jean Rigby a sympathetic Suzuki. Mark Stone made something of Yamadori, but Alan Oke's Goro and Julian Tovey's Bonze were ciphers.

The conductor, David Parry, hammered out the score in vulgar fashion, letting rip at the climaxes, but showing scant consideration either for Butterfly's fragility or Puccini's refinements. This is a performance for connoisseurs of Vogue, not lovers of opera.

THE TIMES
November 07, 2005
Opera: Madam Butterfly
RICHARD MORRISON AT COLISEUM, WC2
IT’S gorgeous to look at, saturated with homages to Japanese theatre, and as ingeniously staged as anything in the West End this autumn.

Oscar-winning Anthony Minghella’s debut as an opera director deserves cheers on many levels — but not the one that really counts. When Butterfly plunges the sword into herself, I doubt whether there is a wet eye in the house. Aiming to stylise Puccini’s imperialist tragedy along the ritualised lines of Bunraku or Kabuki drama, Minghella ends up sterilising it. Italian emotions and Japanese puppets don’t really mix.

That’s one problem. The other is that the musical standards aren’t top class. There’s one touching and beautifully observed performance, from the tiny-framed but great-hearted Mary Plazas in the title role, and decent support acts from Christopher Purves’s Sharpless, Jean Rigby’s harrowed Suzuki and Mark Stone’s nobly-sung Yamadori. But the score never takes wing under David Parry’s workmanlike baton. Grafting Minghella’s sophisticated visuals on to this pedestrian musical approach is like trying to run a Rolls-Royce chassis on a Trabant engine.

Which is a pity, because Minghella’s imaginative sweep often takes the breath away. It is achieved primarily through one dazzlingly cinematic stroke of inspiration. Michael Levine’s set, a sparse black box with sliding Japanese screens, is roofed by a mirror. That not only gives us a bird’s eye view of the stage, but also reveals what’s going on behind the scenes. Psychologically, the effect is to heighten the chasm between illusion and reality — the chasm into which Butterfly fatally falls.

In this set, sumptuously lit by Peter Mumford, the costumes of the Chinese fashion designer Han Feng explode in a riot of colour. So do whole ballets of fans and lanterns, blossom petals, origami birds, and fluttering leaves. Choreographed by Carolyn Choa, Minghella’s wife, dance also plays an unusually big part in the action.

Indeed, the magnificent Act I duet between Butterfly and Pinkerton (Gwyn Hughes Jones) is staged almost as a pas de deux, replete with two climactic leaps by the heroine into her lover’s arms.

All this is gripping. So are the mime shows foreshadowing each act. Yet in the end the stylisation gets in the way, and nowhere more so than in Minghella’s most controversial innovation: having Butterfly’s three-year-old love child portrayed by a puppet. A sly comment on the wooden acting sometimes encountered in opera houses? Minghella surely wouldn’t be that cruel. But it’s one Oriental touch too many, distracting us from a Butterfly who deserves total attention.

FRONT ROW
Adam Mars Jones (talking to Mark Lawson)
If you want one image for it it would be the Bunraku puppetry... I ended up thinking let’s close all the stage schools and let all children under 12 be played by puppets …yes they’re a little pleased with themselves but so would I be if I could make something inhuman so constantly and yet very human… it did a better job of piercing than a human child does.

NIGHT WAVES
Peggy Reynolds
It really is a very good night out at the theatre...
…especially the child, the 3 year old child is played by a puppet, is so beautifully done and is so moving and works exquisitely…

SATURDAY REVIEW- Radio 4
Catherine Bott: For me it was the moment I realized I was really far more moved , I mean really moved -up to tearing up at the sight of this dear little boy who was a Bunraku puppet being operated by three tall men…

THE OBSERVER
Strings attached
Anthony Minghella lavishes love on his first opera, while Renee Fleming enraptures her audience
Anthony Holden
Sunday November 13, 2005

How to portray a two-year-old on the stage? In the case of Puccini's Madam Butterfly, it is usually done with a wide-eyed, if slightly older, boy - the product of our heroine's wedding night with the treacherous American sailor Pinkerton, and the figure at the emotional heart of the opera. Anthony Minghella's solution is to use a marionette.

Well, a marionette may act better than a two-year-old, but it's something of a problem when he's manipulated, however expertly, by three masked men, who must follow the little fellow around wherever he goes. This is the Bright Idea that the Oscar-winning film director brings to his first opera staging: a lavish, West End-style version of the Puccini heartbreaker, rather more Miss Saigon than Madam Butterfly. It may be authentically Bunraku, and the audience seemed to love it; but I found the puppet arch, and a distraction from more important matters such as Butterfly's deluded preparations for Pinkerton's return. The same goes for the huge, angled mirror above the stage - as in fellow film director Mario Martone's Ballo in Maschera for Covent Garden, which returns this week; it makes for some dramatic effects - notably at Butterfly's overly grand entrance - but seeing everything that's going on behind the scenes can be a mixed blessing.

Michael Levine's sets and Han Feng's costumes bring a riot of colour to the sliding panels so often used in stage depictions of Japanese home life, marred only by the use of those Habitat lamp-shades of Sixties ubiquity. Amid showers of the usual cherry blossom, Minghella's heavily stylised reading was at times infected by the sentimentality that can mar his films; when Pinkerton picked up Butterfly to carry her to bed, I was reminded of that cringe-making moment in The English Patient when Ralph Fiennes carries Kristin Scott Thomas into a cave, with the same thing in mind.

Even more has gone wrong (or you've got an ignorant first-night audience) when there is giggling as Christopher Purves's noble Sharpless curses Pinkerton as the 'bastard' he is. The sheer bulk of Gwyn Hughes Jones somehow underscores the American's selfish cowardice.

For all her diminutive stature, especially in his shadow, Mary Plazas makes a beguiling Butterfly, singing beautifully, if not quite powerfully enough, with Jean Rigby offering strong support as Suzuki. Plazas might have fared better with more passion from David Parry in the pit.

Despite the temptations of Parry's translation, as in: 'The world is my oyster, like any roving Yankee', Minghella resists the temptation to turn the piece into a modish anti-American tract. Thanks partly to the choreography of his associate director (and wife), Carolyn Choa, it comes across as scrupulously, cinematically Japanese. But the extra stage business, from ritual dances to dumb-shows, constantly diverts attention from the unfolding tragedy, leaving the eye dry as Butterfly makes a ritual end of herself.

CBC ARTS
Minghella's stylish 'Butterfly' divides critics
Last Updated Mon, 07 Nov 2005 13:58:05 EST

Oscar-winning filmmaker Anthony Minghella, best known for sumptuous-looking films like The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley, received mixed reviews Monday for his opera debut.

The British director premiered a visually striking production of Puccini's Madam Butterfly for the English National Opera in London on Sunday. It drew raves as well as disapproving reviews from the British press.
The critic from the Independent gave the production five stars out of five, writing Monday that "this Butterfly is at once the simplest and most sumptuous thing we've ever seen in this theatre."

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Minghella's Butterfly was criticized for prizing style over substance.
"Minghella's concept eviscerates the heart and soul of the work, chucking out its emotional reality and stuffing it instead with catwalk chic," a critic for the Daily Telegraph wrote. "This is a performance for connoisseurs of Vogue, not lovers of opera."

The production drew controversy early on for its use of a puppet, manipulated by veiled "invisible" puppeteers, to portray Butterfly's young son. The set design features a lacquered floor, origami birds and other symbols borrowed from Japanese theatre.

The production, which like all ENO productions was sung in English, was eagerly awaited by the London opera crowd and the 11-performance run was virtually sold out.

Starring Mary Plazas in the title role, Madam Butterfly continues at the ENO until Dec. 13 before moving to New York's Metropolitan Opera and the Lithuanian National Opera in 2006.

LONDONIST
Editor: Rob Hinchcliffe, Publisher: Gothamist
November 08, 2005
Puccini and Puppets: Two Great Tastes That Taste Great Together

…The Butterfly the night before was, let us admit from the start, not even close to the same level vocally. While everyone on stage could basically sing the notes, no one was actually impressive. And Mary Plazas in the title role, although she has a effective musical intelligence and is a fine actress, has a voice that just isn't very big -- a particular problem in the rather cavernous Coliseum. Gwyn Hughes Jones as Pinkerton fared only a little better. Also, the principal singers and the conductor David Parry need to simply sit down and decide who is in charge at the big vocal climaxes -- the coordination between singer and orchestra fell apart at nearly every one (although this may well have been just an opening night problem).

We hear that the critics are divided, but in our opinion Anthony Minghella's direction was superb, and those that criticise the production for being "too pretty" are both puritanical and blind. From its motivating concept to it minute details, the staging decisions served the drama while remaining, at every moment, gorgeous to look at. The whole evening worked so well, on almost every level, that we eventually completely forgot the musical weaknesses of the evening, and that when there was a detail of his staging that we didn't quite "get" (why are those dancers appearing at the back of the stage?) we were more than willing to go along with him.
The test of a Madame Butterfly production is the staging of the Act 1 duet. By this point in the opera, the audience is already aware that, however the work ends, this is a very ugly story: the title character is a fifteen-year-old girl who has been forced into quasi-prostitution by her family's disgrace. Before you can say "paedo shock," an American soldier twice her age has purchased her, although she remains blissfully deluded that he actually loves her. The duet comes at the end of the act, during twenty minutes of excruciatingly beautiful music we hear a fifteen-year-old lose her virginity. If the staging makes this moment seem like a bog-standard operatic seduction scene, then we risk losing sight of the horror of what's being portrayed. If the director presents a straightforward rape, then the director seems deaf to the music and blind to its dramatic complexities.

Minghella's duet manages this tightrope walk perfectly: the stage, filled with a falling curtain of flower petals borrowed from kabuki tradition and paper lanterns representing both the stars and fireflies mentioned in the text, places the action in the realm of fantasy -- both Butterfly's and Pinkerton's -- while the fear and pain on Plazas's face and physical dominance of Hughes-Jones's gestures leave us in no doubt as to the power dynamics of the situation. As the seduction is at last consummated, the singers are concealed behind a billowing blue cloth, recalling Butterfly's wedding sash, the sea from which Pinkerton arrived and into which he will disappear, and the blood that will eventually pour out of her body at her suicide.

We've dwelt on this one moment in the hope of communicating how rich in detail, how meticulously thought-though, this production is throughout. Most reactions, we suspect, will focus on more superficial aspects of the show: its reference to traditional Japanese dance and theater, and especially its use of puppets in the style of classical Japanese bunraku. This is perhaps less innovative and interesting as a concept than it may at first seem. Any number of productions of this opera have attempted to make similar conceptual allusions. What needs to be stressed is how beautiful, intelligent, and viscerally affecting Minghella has made these ideas in execution.

We almost don't want to describe the puppets too much, since we went into the evening not expecting them, and so their sheer dramatic power was that much more astounding. But believe us: the way the puppets are manipulated, and the was the human performers relate to them onstage create a totally unique theatrical effect. When, during the "dream ballet" interpolated into the opening of Act 3, the puppet representing Butterfly clutches with desperation at the departing Pinkerton, we heard an audible gasp go up around us.

There is so much to praise about this staging: the ravishingly beautiful costumes by the haute-couture designer Han Feng, who had never designed theatrical costumes before, and managed to create outfits that reference nineteenth-century Japan just enough, while also feeling glamorously contemporary; the subtle lighting by Peter Mumford which employed those cool robotic-arm spotlights to maximum effect; the spare set by Michael Levine that could utterly change the character of the performance space in an instant. But you can see all these things for yourself: there are only eleven performance left... get your tickets now

Reuters - " Japanese-style Butterfly tests English patience"

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