Mozart's Don Giovanni was first performed in Prague in 1787, so why not see it in Prague in 2010 in the Black Light Marionette Theatre version just a few doors down from the Black Theatre that is doing Aspects of Alice? It is just that we had stumbled across the marionette theatre first. Prague is expensive. Perhaps we just can't afford real people.
There is something about puppets that hovers between the magical, the trapped and the sinister. It is Louis Simpson's lines from My Father in the Night Commanding No that come to mind first:
.......They will not change
There, on the stage of terror and of love.
The actors in that playhouse always sit
In fixed positions—father, mother, child
With painted eyes.
How sad it is to be a little puppet!...
The adult Simpson is remembering his childhood, where his mother and father are stuck in time; fellow puppets with terrifying painted eyes.
And there is Pinocchio, of course, the wooden boy who wants to be a real boy. There was a long floppy rag doll at home that was referred to as Pinocchio, and my mother said it was me. When my father died this year I inherited it.
And then Arthur Miller's The Crucible, where the poppet with the bodkin stuck in it is used as evidence of black magic in the witch hunt.
About twenty years ago in Budapest we took the children to the National Puppet Theatre to see a puppet version of The Tempest in which only Prospero was a full sized human being, played by the great character actor Dezső Garas.
Further back still, when I myself was a young child, my parents took me to the same theatre, and I have some memory of watching an adult puppet version of The Good Soldier Svejk.
Never mind sadistic Mr Punch, the policeman and the hangman. And diabolical Dr Coppelius in Coppelia.
But it is not all sinister. The primitive world of the puppeteer has always seemed more purely theatrical to me than the legitimate theatre where the apparatus of realism invites you to forget the stage. In puppet theatre the stage is firmly the stage, the actors firmly set in the world of that stage. Something in me prefers circus, magic show, masque and masks - the full acknowledgement of artifice - to the endless sitting rooms with one side removed. I suspect that's part of the poetry kit one is provided with at an early stage of childhood.
For five or six years I was actually chair of the board of Norwich Puppet Theatre under the artistic directorship of the brilliant Luis Boy. Luis improvised, changed the show from performance to performance and was never content with one format alone. It was a surreal form of childsplay to him and the shows were small works of art. Luis was a sculptor at heart, a proper inventor.
So Don Giovanni was tempting. An attic theatre up several flights of winding stairs, ten or so steeply tiered rows. The stage set shows the front of a grand house with a balcony and windows above, and a vaulted arch below with cut-out trees and, under it all, an orchestra of ten players to perform the overture. As the violinist's elbow saws at the strings it knocks audibly against the front of the cellist behind him. The trumpeters raise their trumpets to their lips. The drummer beats at the kettle drum. All this is more or less in time with the music.
Donna Anna's silhouette appears at the window. Giovanni and Leporello plot in the foreground. They wave their arms and scuttle here and there before Leporello gets Giovanni in and he has his way with her, only to be discovered by Il Commandatore, whom he then kills in the duel.
Meanwhile the recorded singers sing and the wooden orchestra play without moving ('...how sad it is to be a little puppet..'). Confusions and seductions and betrayals, wonderful solos and arias. Batti, batti, o bel Masetto! sings Zerlina and my mind immediately switches to Winthrop Mackworth Praed's lines from his gorgeous 'Goodnight to the Season', one of the great soufflés of light verse. This verse:
Good night to the Season! - the rages
Led off by the chiefs of the throng,
The Lady Matilda's new pages,
The Lady Eliza's new song;
Miss Fennel's macaw, which at Boodle's
Was held to have something to say;
Mrs Splenetic's musical poodles,
Which bark 'Batti Batti' all day;
The pony Sir Araby sported,
As hot and as black as a coal,
And the Lion his mother imported,
In bearskins and grease, from the role.
But events gallop to the finish. The statue of the Commandatore - a human puppeteer in a grim silvery mask - is invited to supper and duly appears dragging the unrepentant Don down into the earth with him. A good thundering ending.
The production had charm and humour but was not a work of genius. In fact, there were patches of tedium in it because, after all (you might say) they were only puppets. But invention starts there and this went only some of the way.
Outside there are more people in the narrow street than you could shake a million sticks at. A hot close evening. A living statue still stands there, a sweet girl in a faintly grotesque seventeenth century nun's costume, every inch of it, and her, in white. We saw her earlier hurrying to this spot stopping briefly to chat to a fully bronze cardinal. We are tourists so we deserve what we pay for and all we get. The visitor sweeps up the silver glitter. The trick is to remain when the glitter is gone.
The haunting thing about Pinocchio, I suspect, is that we all know what it is to be wooden and long for life as though life were somewhere other than the stage-set we wander over, this whole miraculous caboodle which for now we can call Prague, that is made up of painted flats, marionette rods and strings, and people everywhere gaping, gawping, grinning and breathing the same air as I am, writing this. Stage air. Stage food. Stage drunks. Living on a shoestring and not completely in charge of anything.