Pick of the Week: At last ‘our’ Horse returns home …

When I was out of town in April of this year and missed the screening of the HD movie shown at Cinema Nouveau of the live London National Theatre production of War Horse, I was deeply disappointed. So I am like a kid in the proverbial candy store knowing that I will soon add to the statistic of 5 million people who have seen War Horse since it opened at the National Theatre in 2007.  Joey, the main protagonist of War Horse has captured public attention in the buildup to the opening of the show on 22nd October.   See http://www.artlink.co.za/news_article.htm?contentID=36095   War Horse, commissioned by the National Theatre in London,  is based on Michael Morpurgo’s story about horses sent to the battlefields during World War I.  In the production soldiers are played by live actors while the horses are life size puppets, the creation of the famous Handspring Puppet Company.

Woyzeck on the Highveld Photo: Handspring Puppet Company

Woyzeck on the Highveld Photo: Handspring Puppet Company

I have been in awe of the work of the Handspring Puppet Company [HPC] since I saw one of their earlier theatre pieces back in 1992: Woyzeck on the Highveld, directed by William Kentridge.   In this haunting adaptation of Georg Büchner’s play, the story of a poor mineworker is hauntingly told against the backdrop created through William Kentridge’s projected drawings of  a harsh industrialized landscape.

HPC was started in 1981 with 4 former students from Michaelis Art School in Cape Town and while it has always functioned as a collective, its name is now synonymous with 2 of its co-founders:  Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones.  Their main aims when they started were to produce innovative children’s theatre that was rooted in Africa and to promote  puppetry as a significant theatre form.  The Company’s name was drawn from the Russian puppet master Sergey Vladimir Obraztsov’s philosophy that ‘the soul of the puppet lies in the palm of the hand’.  ‘This’ says Jones, ‘was a way of saying that glove puppets [rather than marionette string puppets] are best. …The rod puppet, which kind of comes out of the glove, was a form we decided on.’  (A. Sichel citing Jones in Handspring Puppet Company edited by Jane Taylor 2009 p 168).

Shadow puppetry from Confessions of Zeno

Shadow puppetry from Confessions of Zeno

Sadly I did not see their very early work but saw 4 of the subsequent HPC/Kentridge collaborations: Faustus in Africa 1995; The Return of Ulysses  1998;  Ubu and the Truth Commission 1996 and Confessions of Zeno 2001; as well as Tall Horse 2004, a joint venture with the Sogolon Puppet Troupe from Mali.  In each production the puppet mechanisms were refined and improved with the multi-disciplined collaborations becoming increasingly demanding. I still cannot fully get my head around the extraordinary creativity of these productions; the complexity and intricacy of the puppets; the skill and artistry of their manipulators; or the nuanced synergies between live actors, puppets (both human and animal), and their puppeteers.

The power and seduction of the puppets lies in their will to create – and yes I use an active construction here knowingly – their will to create a complete suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, to encourage empathy with the characters.  The human puppets are wooden dolls attempting to be real people.

Photo Handspring Puppet Company (ed Taylor, J. 2009 p80)

Photo Handspring Puppet Company (ed Taylor, J. 2009 p80)

In the case of these human puppets, two puppeteers manipulate one puppet.  The manipulators become actors using facial expressions to inform the audience’s understanding of the emotions of the puppet character with its immobile features.  (The puppeteers never focus on anything or anybody but their own puppets – neither audience nor fellow actors). Originally Jones and Kohler tried to hide the puppeteers (as in the Japanese Bunraku tradition) but gradually they came to realize the virtue of an exposed style of performing, with both the puppeteers and mechanics of the puppets made visible to the audience – where the double performance of the puppet and the puppeteer together allows for  powerful identification and empathy. Whenever the manipulators are visible, they wear costumes which are integral to the show and the puppets they operate.  So for example in Ubu and the Truth Commission, the puppeteers wore khaki dustcoats to suggest minor civil servants so integral to the successful functioning of the machinery of State.  It is the reality of the characters created by this dual performance that enables our ‘suspension of disbelief’.  And despite the fact that puppets rarely have moving facial features – from a distance body language articulates more clearly and effectively than facial expression – the success of the audience’s imaginative identification is evident when people ask:  ‘How do you make their eyes move?’ But of course the eyes don’t move.

Courtesy martysyard.co.uk

Courtesy martysyard.co.uk

Another example of suspension of disbelief results from the solutions Kohler and Jones have found to various technical challenges, solutions which again show their minute observation of realistic details.   In the case of the horses in War Horse, Kohler realized that the anatomy of the horse’s legs and those of the humans inside would not correspond as they had done in the case of the giraffe in Tall Horse, where the 2 puppeteers were able to stand on stilts inside the giraffe with these ‘stilted legs’ ‘standing in’ for the giraffe’s legs.   There would be 10 legs under the horse not 4.  Kohler notes:

But [in the horses in War Horse] the hands of the puppeteers would be in close proximity to the puppet legs and therefore available for strong, hands-on manipulation, so the legs had the chance of being highly articulated. If I could successfully mimic the way the horse’s hoof automatically curls under as it is lifted off the ground by the lower leg, I would be able to make credible horse legs that would easily pull focus from the human legs walking beside them under the horse.  The evolution of the jointing of the horse legs in War Horse had begun with the front leg of The Rhino in Woyzeck on the Highveld. It grew in a more sophisticated lever control with passive movement of the front paw of The Hyena in Faustus in Africa and finally was enlarged and employed on all four hooves of the horses. 

(Adrian Kohler in Handspring Puppet Company edited by Jane Taylor 2009 p 134)

Il Ritorno d'Ulisse Music by Monteverdi Puppet Ulisse with Basil Jones and Singer Julian Podger. Animation by William Kentridge. Theatre Malibran Venice 2008 (Source Handspring Puppet Company ed J. Taylor 2009 p 90)

Il Ritorno d’Ulisse Music by Monteverdi Puppet Ulisse with Basil Jones and Singer Julian Podger. Animation by William Kentridge. Theatre Malibran Venice 2008 (Source Handspring Puppet Company ed J. Taylor 2009 p 90)

Another example of this meticulous attention to life-like detail, is Kohler’s realization, through the singer-puppet- puppeteer relationship in the opera production of Return of Ulysses/Il Ritorno d’Ulisse, of the vital importance of breath.  He wrote about this significance:

Breath is the start of any physical movement, providing oxygen to the muscles that sustain the action. Singers take a breath before launching into a new phrase . … If the puppet breathed in at the same time as the singer, and then performed the next sung phrase breathing out, the energy and the impulses of the singer and the puppet blend. As this realization dawned on us, the task before each puppeteer became enormous. We [the puppeteers] would have to know the music intimately, down to each breath of our partners. We would not only have to know the meaning of each Italian line but, since lines are often repeated, we would have to know the emotional effect of each repetition so that this could be visibly performed in the body language of the puppet.  ….

.. when we were designing the horses for War Horse, one of the first priorities was ensuring the visible horse breath.

(Adrian Kohler in Handspring Puppet Company edited by Jane Taylor 2009 p 99)

HPC has created a very particular genre and style of puppetry with their open-weave transparent puppets and visible puppeteers. Interestingly, Sichel argues that they have also created a particularly African aesthetic in their use and creation of a range of movement for their puppets. Jones explains that there is a fundamental technical reason for this. He says that Kohler, as the master puppet-maker, moved the centre of control from the chest to the pelvis:

What he [Adrian] inherited from Europe was a rod control inside a puppet at chest level. He felt it was more appropriate, and better for us, at pelvis level. So he moved the centre of control of the puppet downward in the puppet. This was very important for us and gave a sense of African movement. It was a real but subtle innovation which made a profound difference. 

(A. Sichel citing Jones in Handspring Puppet Company 2009 p 163)

As I write this I am already thinking that one viewing of War Horse will not do the subtleties of this extraordinary production justice – so I might save up my rands and book for an indulgent second viewing  before it closes its run in Jozi on 30th November. I even have guests from Mpumulanga who are driving to Joburg to see War Horse and  have booked here at Liz at Lancaster for their stay.

At last our South African Company has brought their production home.  So welcome home Joey!














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New immigration regulations – Three questions for ‘the Tourism Terminator’ …

Dave Marsh writes in  South African Tourism Update: 
They are calling Home Affairs Minister, Malusi Gigaba, the Tourism Terminator.
Unmoved by the evidence and growing alarm in the travel and tourism sectors about new immigration regulations, he has just reaffirmed in a joint statement with Derek Hanekom, Minister of Tourism, that they will be introduced almost unchanged on October 1.
Our main source markets for tourism will be hard hit. Most do not require a visa and tourists will depart for SA armed only with a passport. With no need to call on an SA mission, why would they think otherwise. If they are travelling with a minor they may get as far as the last leg before they are denied boarding. They will return home shattered, litigating with their travel agent and airline. There will be negative travel trade press coverage in each market about this extraordinary regulation.
SA requires the citizens of most countries to have a visa. They plan to have all our missions enabled to fingerprint and photograph applicants by October 1. They are talking about increasing the number of centres but where and when they themselves do not know at this stage – and it will not be in time.
With biometric visas issued at relatively few centres worldwide, it effectively ends the convention and group tour business as we know it. This will now be limited to those events or tours where all the participants come from the visa-free markets. An international event organiser would be foolish to ask delegates to go to a destination if it meant some of them would have to fly to another centre, or even another country, to be fingerprinted as part of the process for a visa.
Mr Minister, we have three simple questions:
 1) When you say the unabridged birth certificate requirement is not uncommon in other countries, please name the countries, as we have heard of none.
2) When you say you have consulted over these regulations, please tell us with which tourism bodies and when.
 3) Independent fact-checking organisation, Africa Check, has investigated claims that over 30 000 children are being trafficked into prostitution in SA each year. It followed up and found the NGOs were making wildly exaggerated claims to capture public attention and generate moral outrage. Ivo Vegter in the Daily Maverick reported that only a very small number of cases could be substantiated by evidence, according to the analysis. Of those, many appear to have taken place entirely within South Africa, without involving any international air travel. It is not a basis for policy. So Mr Minister, what details do you have about the international aspect of this child trafficking scourge?
We may be wrong but we think the minister cannot answer any of these questions satisfactorily.
David Frost, SATSA CEO, has pointed out that there was no process of active consultation with the tourism industry. “Nor have we had sight of any economic or regulatory impact assessment study from Home Affairs,” he says.
SATSA is lobbying for a 12 month postponement. “To this end we will be working closely with our fellow associations, ASATA, BARSA, SAVRALA and AASA, through the auspices of the TBCSA,” says Frost.
As this issue went to press, the Association of Southern African Travel Agents (ASATA) confirmed in a statement that it had questioned the effectiveness of the anti-child trafficking measures and also asked for a 12-month grace period.
 The letter requesting a meeting with the minister that ASATA sent last month, together with four other major industry bodies, has been ignored – not even acknowledged.
 We are hopeful that this madness will be stopped, because the process and foundation for this policy are so flawed that the courts would throw it out if it is challenged.
By Dave Marsh South African Tourism Update 7th August 2014
Liz at Lancaster has already had two cancellations from travellers who could not get visas.
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But we don’t have any geese …. ?

2014 The Camdeboo


If you want to escape Joburg  while never leaving it – try the Peach Café at Camdeboo farm. Tucked away in the middle of suburbia, a mere 3km from the mayhem of Fourways Mall and the frenetic concrete highway, is a rustic small holding with sheep and geese and, in season, peaches for the picking.  The first blossoms were just bursting when we were there for brunch. The Peach Café offers a small menu  with good wholesome food from the farm (with lots of sustenance for vegetarians) and great flat bread freshly baked in the pizza oven.

It’s chilled and laid back with a real country feel.  (The service could do with being a little less laid back.) Don’t expect anything chichi or zhoozh (why do I have to choose words I really don’t know how to spell?) – it’s rustic, unpretentious and down to earth.  Described on its website http://www.camdeboofarm.co.za/ as:

Wonderful farm experience in the middle of busy Joburg – rustic surrounds, gourmet food, delicious wood-fired pizza, seasonal peach picking and a farmstyle shop filled to the brim with preserves and homemade goodies.

2014 Camdeboo menu

When one of our party said ‘And you can even buy goose food’. Her husband looked at her in a bemused fashion and said “But we don’t have any geese.”  We explained gently it was to buy for the children to  feed the geese.  Fortunately, these assertive animals are safely but very noisily constrained behind fencing – no terrified toddlers being chased by squawking feathered monsters with flapping wings, out-stretched necks and snapping orange beaks.

 So for a chilled week-end brunch or lunch make your way there – and there is a play area for kids too.



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