Thursday, July 24, 2008

Life on the Strings – Doctor Faustus by Ljubljana Puppet Theatre from Slovenia



Life was hanging on the strings. Mephistopheles was dancing around. And Faustus was uncertain about his action, life and deeds. He was a puppet in the hands of the destiny, emoting, interacting, trying to cope up with, struggling to get away, and arguing with himself and Mephistopheles, who had made him sign a treaty that has been taken away by a flying spirit the moment he took his hands off.


It was a puppet play. The place was the upstairs of Oxford Books in Kolkota. And the Ljubljana puppet theatre from Slovenia was performing their adaptation of Doctor Faustus. The event was part of the Ganakrishti International theatre festival 2008. And I was there to present my play Karnnabharam in the fest.

Doctor Faustus written by Marlowe was adapted brilliantly by Igor Cvetko and the director Jelina Sitar, to suit the puppet show. The performance space was barely 1feet x 1.5 feet. The puppets were 4 inches size. Cast in metal and tied on strings the puppeteers gave life to these inanimate objects to narrate the saga of human fate and tragedy into an interesting, animated funny tale of about one hour duration. The Puppets and stage design is done by Milan Klemenčič

The puppets of Faustus, his servant Wagner, Mephistopheles (in many forms), the evil spirits and assistants of Mephistopheles, spirits, animals, Boatman Caron of the underworld, his master Pluto who is the lord of the underworld, Helen of Troy (offering to Faustus from Mephistopheles) and other devilish creatures were the regular expected characters. There was Kasperle - a jester and regular character from the European puppetry world, is an added character in the plot. Kasperle arrives as the house of the professor Faustus, and offers himself to be his servant, who can clean, roam around the master and of course eat and drink, but for a salary. He cannot enter into a treatise since he does not have a soul (I am just a puppet without a soul to pledge)! The puppet Kasperle is in an interesting counterpoint to Faustus and his surrender to Mephistopheles. As a parallel to Faustus- Mephistopheles couple there is the couple of Kasperle and Asmedeus, one of the devilish spirits. In the final scene when Faustus is to be taken to the hell, Kasperle has also to depart the duty of the servant and go away. But he has to be given the salary for two months that is pending and Faustus is unable to pay it. Instead Faustus offers to exchange his costlier cloth for with Kasperle, which Kasperle denies. He says that if it is done there is a chance that Mephistopheles may mistake him for Faustus and will be taken to the hell. Instead he says that Faustus may say hallo to his aunt who is staying in room no 13 of the hell. The introduction of Kasperle made a very interesting parallel to the Faust story and at the same time added fun and humour to the plot.



Doctor Faustus is undoubrtedly one of the most prominent characters in Eureopean literary history. The motif of the story about a scholar who sells his soul to the devil in his desire for absolute knowledge of the world can be tracked down to the European Middle Ages. Its origin however can be found in the legend of Theophilus brought to Europe form Asia Minor in the 11th century, and written down as a play in 13th century France.

Different German variants followed. Faustus as the title hero fist appears in Christopher Marlowe`s drama form the 16th century. Doctor Faust became one of the most popular plays performed by travelling puppet theatre companies in 17th and 18th century Germany, spreading as part of puppeteers` standard repertory throughout Central Europe.
The great German poet Goethe saw a play and transformed it into his famous epic. Nevertheless, Fustus has spent the most of his treatre life on the puppet theatre stage.
The Slovenian Doctor Faustus puppet production of 1938 in Ljubljana saw the creative pinnacle of Slovenian puppetry pioneer, painter Milan Klemenčič (1875 – 1957) who used the Leipzig text of the play, adapted and produced it at his Little Marionette Theatre.

The puppet play as is presented now uses puppets on strings that is moved and manipulated by the puppeteers, and also sets, painted backdrops, music, sound and lighting. The set looked realistic and at times expressionistic (when it represented non realistic spaces). The detailing of the sets and action are amazing: for example it has the many windows lighted by different colored glasses being closed in one by one, as midnight falls!

It was interesting and enthralling to watch the way the puppets moved, danced, flied and filled the tiny performance area. The tiny puppets filled the whole volume of the ‘theatre’ with immense energy, rhythm, and subtlety. They danced, climbed on tables, chairs and the furniture, and were trying to climb on a horse and taken to the skies by the horse, sat on chairs etc. There were immense life in these inanimate objects that was transmitted into them by the puppeteer; the puppets become an extension of the body of the puppeteer. The puppeteer has to breathe his soul and energy, into the puppets while he manipulates them. We can also say that it is the nature and the character of the puppet decides the puppeteer and his work, not the other way round. It is the puppet that demands to the puppeteer to work in a specific way since it has a nature, character, and life of its own. The mutuality of the puppet and puppeteer gives sense to a puppet play.

The play in five acts ended in doctor Faustus being taken ‘to hell with heaven and earth’. The tiny inanimate objects and the microcosm it created were effectively chronicling the pit of man in earth, and his voyage for hell and heaven within and around himself.

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