Award winning puppetry company Blind Summit are breaking new ground this Edinburgh with a show that contains almost no traditional puppetry at all. Henry is an unusual departure for a company that has built a reputation for delivering beautiful, surprising and accomplished productions that revolve almost entirely around their bunraku-style Extreme Puppetry. Happily Henry proves that Blind Summit can deliver on new fronts, continue to reinvent itself and push forwards.
The audience is effusively welcomed into the space as Artistic Director and performer Mark Down lays out the structure of the show in character as ‘Luke Alexander’ – we are the students in a masterclass that he, an established and eccentric creative practitioner, is delivering in the hopes that it will help him develop a new show about his father. I’m not sure if this is coincidental, but Down’s character reminds me overwhelmingly of Simon McBurney. It’s not exactly complimentary if intended, but this caricature helps to distance the character from Mark himself. As he explains in further detail in this interview, Henry isn’t autobiographical, but his own experiences have helped to shape the show in rehearsals.
Mark guides us, and two onstage performers, through his technique of improvising and devising new physical theatre. Initially I was worried that this comedy might not resonate as strongly with members of the audience who aren’t theatre makers, but happily (or perhaps unhappily) it seems that self-centred, narcissistic, middle-aged control freaks are universal. As the character tries desperately to make his performers realise his vision, waves of delighted laughter pour from the audience, as we get an entertaining insight into the devised theatre-making process. The two onstage performers Fiona Clift and Tom Espiner do a great job of helping this along with their studied ineptitude.
There’s a deeper element to this masterclass parody – Down’s director is trying to make sense of the death of his father, an absent figure who never acknowledged him when he was alive. This father is manifested by a black-clad, knarled and twisted bunraku puppet who, unspeaking, looms over the director as he tries to process his grief. Blind Summit are on familiar territory here, indeed Mark has worked with this particular puppet for years, and we get to catch a glimpse of their mastery as the puppet effortlessly comes alive. Henry is essentially a show about loss of control – an unthinkable tragedy for a puppet director, who’s whole identity is based on being in complete authority. It comes across as a lonely, isolating career, which makes me hope that Henry shows just one side of the profession.
The show has gone through a number of radical iterations as Mark Down has experimented to find this particular story (perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Henry is about a man experimenting to find his story). It doesn’t feel like this is the production’s final form – there seems to still be a missing piece of the puzzle, perhaps one that makes a stronger statement about why this story needs to be told now, why it is important that we follow this director through this process.
In a way, departing from the norm and doing the unexpected brilliantly is Blind Summit’s calling card. As such, perhaps doing a show without much puppetry is something that we should have expected. It marks an exciting and ambitious departure for the company, and hopefully it’s a herald of even more new work to come.