Puppet. Book of Splendor, Summerhall

Originally written for Exeunt.

The title of neTTheatre’s hypnotic physical theatre show is a little misleading. There is, throughout this compelling hour and twenty minutes, a distinct scarcity of puppets. Instead, channelling the work of Tadeusz Kantor and excavating dense Jewish scripture, this is a non-linear, disorientating journey through the realms of life and death. Viewing the human condition through the lens of cabalism, director Pawel Passini’s creation is a contorted compendium of dreams, desires and nightmares, as captivating as it is bewildering.

We are given a road map of sorts, a projected schema studded with words such as “beauty”, “justice” and “understanding”, through which the performance can be refracted but never quite clearly seen. This, we are warned, is to be expected. In one of several deft nods to the artifice of theatre, the knowing voice of the director cuts in to tell the audience that we will probably struggle to follow what we are about to see and that we might not enjoy it; this is “sit down tragedy”, not “stand up comedy”.

The piece, however, is as visual as it is intellectual. Rich and sometimes ridiculous images compete for attention, from dreamlike projections to a host of angels in white wigs and hipster glasses. In the midst of Passini’s assault on the eyes, it is the alternately graceful and vicious physicality of neTTheatre’s performers that captures the gaze. A man and woman, cast as Adam and Eve figures, move fluidly as one body, arms hemmed together inside the same shirt; another woman spits the Hebrew alphabet, the letters bodily wrenched from her diaphragm as her torso spasms.

The screaming succession of startling images summons questions, tumbling feverishly one after another. Who is the silent artist figure, seeming to paint the world into creation around him? What is reality and what is dreamed? Does the gaping emptiness of a figure made from clothes – one of the production’s few instances of puppetry – suggest that God too is just a void clothed in empty faith?

Questions, however, are deflected by both text and performance. We are told that “to know is to pose questions”; questions breed questions in the same way as Passini’s baffling imagery, with none of those insistent “why’s” bringing us any closer to understanding or satisfaction. The answers that we seek are repeatedly evaded. In this way, neTTheatre grasp us by the hand and roughly guide us to the relinquishing of linear logic that is required to experience their performance as intended – as an experience.

And as an experience it is exhilarating and exhausting. There is perhaps too much going on, certainly too much to fully absorb both the surtitles and the stage language, but this seems to be the point. A fraction of enlightenment is all that we can hope for. But understanding is not everything. As a Rabbi in the show says of the young daughter who insists on reading from cabalist teachings, “she understands nothing, but it pleases me”.

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