Michael Flanders, Daniel Barenboim,Stravinsky

Many years ago, just after my period as a remarkably unsuccessful “antique” seller in the Camden Passage market, I joined the Little Angel Puppet Theatre and started out on what would be one of my main careers, that of a theatre technician.

My chief area of work there was as a lighting guy and scenery maker, and John Wright, the wonderful South African Puppeteer who ran the theatre with his wife, Lindy taught me all I needed to know to do that work.

John wright
John Wright

One of the true highlights of my time with them was the version of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, which we performed at the Purcell Rooms (part of the Royal Festival Hall complex on the south bank of the Thames).

This was a seriously big undertaking for the Little Angel Theatre crew, who were more used to working on the small and intimate scale of their own theatre in Islington in a setting that was totally set up for puppetry – not a description that you could apply to the Purcell Rooms, which was simply a flat stage at the end of a long and relatively narrow auditorium, and which was, reasonably enough, set up and designed for small scale classical concerts to be performed in.

But, I am happy to say, we pulled it off magnificently.

The basic idea was that we used a whole series of rod puppets (controlled from below and behind by means of rigid rods connected to their moving parts), and the puppeteers were dressed from head to foot in soft, non-reflective – black fabric, and worked on a stage that had a series of steps going across the stage from left to right, so the further upstage you went (away from the audience) the higher you were.

The stage itself was also painted matt black, and the sides and back of the stage were covered with soft black fabric.

The lighting was by means of a series of spot lights on either side of the stage, aimed across the stage horizontally, with very narrow beams.  And the idea was that the puppets would be held in one or more of these beams of light, and thus be visible to the audience, and when not held in the light, would be invisible.

The created the effect of the puppets floating in the air, but as often is the case with puppets, one quickly stopped “seeing” them as floating, but sort of invented a ground for them to be walking on.. odd how our minds do that sort of thing.

Most of the puppets were about a meter (3 foot) tall, but as there were no reference points regarding size, the audience quickly saw the puppets as normal human size.  So when at the very end of the story, the soldier crosses the frontier to be reunited with his lover, and the Devil comes to claim his soul, we used a Devil puppet which was about 8 feet tall, so it looked enormous when it loomed over the soldier puppet we used in that scene (the soldier puppet we used there was a very small one, about 30 cms tall to make the difference in size even more marked and dramatic).

John Wright with Devil puppets (thanks to Ronnie le Drew for this photo)
John Wright with Devil puppets (thanks to Ronnie le Drew for this photo)

Various Devils.... Also thanks to Ronnie le Drew for the photo.
Various Devils…. Also thanks to Ronnie le Drew for the photo.

On all levels this was a total success as a production, and was completely enjoyable as well.

The way The Soldier’s Tale works is that (in this case) one has a cast of puppets who enact the story in mime, a narrator who tells the story, and a small chamber orchestra who play the music.  All of this, with the exception of the narrator worked superbly.  Sadly the narrator was Michael Flanders (of Flanders and Swann, of Drop of a Hat fame), a man whose work I had enjoyed and admired for many years prior to this show, but who sadly turned out to be a very unpleasant and arrogant man.

On the other hand, the music was under the leadership of Daniel Barenboim, also a man I admired enormously, and who I am happy to report turned out to be a remarkably likeable and pleasing man to work with, and obviously the musicians he led were also great to work with, being no less than The English Chamber Orchestra.

As a sort of side note, while we were rehearsing The Soldier’s Tale, Barenboim also had a concert in the Queen Elizabeth Hall with his wife, Jacqueline Du Pre, Isaac Perlman and Zubin Mehta, and I had the wonderful experience of watching them rehearsing on the stage there. They were all having a great time, obviously really good friends with each other, so loads of laughing and enjoyment.

And what was even better was how they kept stopping and asking the cleaning ladies who were busy in the auditorium what they thought of how a particular passage had been played, and listening carefully to what those good ladies said.  Obviously the cleaners there heard so much good music played by so many great musicians, that they had a real knowledge of how it should sound.

So, as you can imagine, this was one hell of an experience for me, especially as at that point in my life I had not had much exposure to the Great and Good of the theatrical and musical world (that came later in my life), so I was deeply impressed to find myself rubbing shoulders with such famous people.   And also to learn the obvious point, which was that famous people are still ordinary humans ……………..

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