By Nick Pilgrim
In more than a decade of reviewing, I have had the privilege to witness a tremendous range of shows, events, and experiences. From plays and musicals, or cabaret to comedy, perhaps the most diverse and challenging category I have critiqued would be puppetry.
The inherent magic in this special art form, is any group’s ability to suspend audience belief and bring inanimate objects to life. By making us care about these creatures and their respective journeys, takes tremendous research, thought, soul and skill.
Some of the more standout examples watched from this sector include:
- Emil And The Detectives;
- Hand To God;
- The Mighty Little Puppet Show;
- Thank You For Being A Friend; and,
My first memory of the Snuff Puppets happened many years ago.
Channel surfing late one night, I somehow ended up watching Andrew Denton’s self-titled show on ABC TV. Known for its subversive content, Denton introduced a new act which had caught his attention.
For three minutes the costumed entertainers climbed over Channel Two’s perplexed studio audience, attacking each other with fake swords, before their biggest puppet urinated water over the first few rows. (This notorious clip may be found at YouTube using the search ‘Snuff Puppets tear Mr Fool apart on the Denton Show’.)
To say their first major public outing took hold is an understatement.
Since that inauspicious debut, the Snuff Puppets have earned an impressive list of milestones, accolades, and awards. In three decades, the company has also conducted thirty-eight tours to more than twenty-five countries around the world. Of course, this impressive global reach makes perfect sense. Many of their works feature very little or no spoken dialogue at all. Transcending both language and cultural barriers, gives Snuff Puppets’ productions tremendous universal appeal.
Social and electronic media plays a massive role in building their brand as well; YouTube hits to date generated more than 325 million views. No matter how strange or controversial, Snuff Puppets aren’t beyond triggering gut reactions either. With that level of audience interaction, they must be onto something.
One clip, Everybody Isolates, has 111 million hits alone. Some of the comments range from “what the hell have I just watched?” to “this is the greatest thing ever.”
Between everything from street theatre to roving installations, their long list of shows tackle hot button topics such as environmental education, gender studies and sustainability. Collaborations with other artists include cabaret performers, circus acts, dancers, and musicians.
The list goes on.
(It should be noted that classes and workshops are offered at their home base in Footscray throughout the year. This is by either teaching students how to operate the puppets, or to help the team with various aspects of assembly and construction.)
With a running time of eighty minutes, Swamp – At The End Of The World, is the first part of a month-long Snuff Fest. Following its strictly limited season ending on Saturday September 16, this celebration will be followed by 100 Eggs (Saturday September 23), Cochlea (Saturday September 30), and Snuff Party (Saturday October 7).
Swamp is an immersive tale which takes place on a mound occupied by oversized Australian wildlife. Its inhabitants include a crafty magpie, a bloodthirsty mosquito, a dopey koala, an egocentric lyrebird, a skittish frilled-neck lizard, a grand old thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), and a poisonous cane toad. How they interact with one another and encroaching human contact, make up the essence of this dramatic story.
Swamp is connected by original music composition, multimedia projection and live movement. That the addition of fabric, plastic, sponge rubber, and wood can invoke viewer responses from laughter to tears, demonstrates the sheer enormity of Snuff Puppets’ collective vision. (At times I was reminded of The Lion King and Warhorse, and how their narratives carried tremendous political punch as well.)
Several key moments during Swamp spring to mind.
From the pesky mosquito which ‘buzzed’ members of opening night’s front row, a ravenous cane toad eating everything in its path, to the desperate lizard caught in heavy traffic, my plus-one and I were simply blown away by the level of stagecraft.
Each puppet is constructed to take full advantage of their operators’ bodies. Sculpted entirely around human frames, requires intense physicality and trust needed to maintain the show’s seamless momentum and audience interest. Layered or peeled back to reveal painted muscles or bone, this awe was intensified by several huge inflatable props which somehow appeared from nowhere. That their venue can accommodate so much visual activity within its confined space, is impressive stuff indeed.
From lighting and sound management behind the scenes, the overall experience is supported by a lone keyboard player and sound effects operator positioned to the side of the flat open stage. Their work was non-stop and demonstrates how it takes a village to make productions on this scale flow and succeed.
If the opening night audience is any indication, Swamp has wide-ranging demographic appeal. That the narrative tackles difficult subject matter (like the impact of pollution, deforestation, and bushfires) may be a consideration before bringing younger viewers. That being said, Swamp is an unforgettable experience.
Image: Daniell Flood