The plays of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) have been produced with human actors globally for over four centuries. Less well known are the many puppet versions of his dramas performed since the early seventeenth century. Shakespeare has been puppet-ized in order to introduce the classics to new audiences, to draw on the playwright’s cultural cachet, or to appropriate his compelling stories. More recently, puppets have been used in Shakespeare’s plays to perform the roles of children and animals, since they are easier to handle.
The modern and contemporary artists in this exhibition recognize the dramatic potential in puppets and everyday objects. They deploy them not simply to replace human thespians with miniature actors. Rather, they cast non-humans in roles to reveal metaphorical substrates of Shakespeare’s plays. Puppets cast new light on dramatic characters and situations. This exhibition celebrates objects as legitimate actors for dramatic literature and the capacities of Shakespeare’s plays as frameworks for exploring relations among people, things, and the world. This exhibition was curated by Dr. Jungmin Song.
Macbeth tells of a Scottish general who takes to heart the prophecy of three strange women that he will be king. Propelled by his wife and driven by lust for power, Macbeth kills those who stand in the way of kingship. Many puppet artists have been drawn to Macbeth’s bloody murders, witchcraft, supernatural atmosphere, and hallucinations caused by fear and guilt. We present here five vastly different puppet approaches to the characters of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth that are fashioned into wrestlers, birds, household objects, gumball-machine ninjas, and Cubist-inspired marionettes.
Center for Puppetry Arts
Puppets designed by Chris Brown
Adapted and directed by Jon Ludwig
Puppets built by Katie George, Chris Brown, Bob Lynch
Jaxsan-coated polyfoam, muslin, nylon webbing, rope, leather, wood, acrylic, spandex, plastic wood, latex, wool, vinyl, cotton, chain, elastic, springs
This version of Shakespeare’s tragedy, produced by Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts, and directed by Jon Ludwig, took the form of a professional wrestling match on a stage designed as a wrestling ring. The show was described as “two-fisted, slammin', rammin' iambic pentameter meets rowdy, rockin', headbanging puppet action,” featuring “all your favorite stars—Macbeth, Gorgeous Lady Macbeth, Duncan, Macduff and more—all fighting for the title.”
A review of the production noted that the tragedy’s major battle scenes and confrontations “are fought by muscle-bound puppets in the ring, from the ‘Rebels vs. Thanes’ that sets Macbeth on road to title, to the climactic ‘Wrastle in the Castle.’” Play-by-play commentary “mentions pile-drivers and sleeper holds, as well as phrases clipped directly from Shakespeare's text, like ‘They're bathed in reeking wounds!’ or Macbeth's menacing slogan, ‘Sleep no more!’”
Tiny Ninja Theater
Tiny Ninja Theater presents Macbeth
Designed, directed, and performed by Dov Weinstein
Tiny plastic ninjas, assorted dime-store figures, cardstock, glue
Dov Weinstein, a struggling actor in New York, came up with the idea for his tiny Ninja Macbeth one day when he found himself in front of a vending machine filled with plastic figurines encased in clear plastic eggs. As he told The Times of Israel (only a bit tongue-in-cheek): “I thought, ‘Wow, so no one’s using these to do classical theater. I figured I’d do ‘Macbeth,’ the shortest tragedy. I knew it couldn’t be a comedy.’” Weinstein premiered his one-man Tiny Ninja Macbeth at the 2000 New York International Fringe Festival, and its success—due in large part to the seriousness with which he performed the tragedy—led him to tour the show around the world. Presented here are Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in their castle, King Duncan and his retinue feasting, a Messenger on horseback, the English army (disguised behind a fan), and a chorus of Ninja apparitions.
Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare
Designed and performed by Richard Lowdon
Directed by Tim Etchells
Forced Entertainment, a group of six artists based in Sheffield, England, created Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare to include 36 Shakespeare plays. Each is presented in a condensed version, comically and intimately retold with a collection of everyday objects as stand-ins or puppets for the characters, on an ordinary table top. Forced Entertainment has long been obsessed with virtual or described performance, exploring the possibilities of conjuring extraordinary scenes, images, and stories using language alone. In a brand-new direction for the group, Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare explores the dynamic force of narrative in relation to all of Shakespeare’s plays. What follows is simple and idiosyncratic, absurd and strangely compelling performance as, through a kind of lo-fi, home-made puppetry, the stories of the plays come to life in vivid miniature.
Little Angel Theatre
Puppets created by Lyndie Wright
Directed by Peter Glanville
Wood, Cloth, Paint
Little Angel Theatre was founded in the Islington district of London in 1961 by John and Lyndie Wright, and has developed a national and international reputation for finely wrought and performed productions. After the death of John Wright in 1991, other artistic directors have guided the company, but Lyndie Wright has continued to this day as the theater’s main puppet designer, in a workshop attached to the theater itself. Initially focused on marionette performance, Little Angel shows later experimented with different techniques, such as these rod puppet birds, designed by Lyndie Wright for a 2013 production of Macbeth directed by Peter Glanville, the company’s artistic director from 2006 to 2013. All the puppets in this production of the Scottish play are birds, but, as can be seen here, they carry physical human features such as hands and feet to allow for a more diverse range of gestures.
Created by Michael and Jane Eve
Loaned by The British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild
Hogarth Puppets was founded in 1932 in London by Jan Bussell and Ann Hogarth, and used a variety of puppet techniques to create literary dramas, children’s tales, poetry and songs, and music hall and circus acts. They became England’s best-known puppet company, and pioneered the introduction of puppets on British television in the 1930s. These innovative cubist marionettes for Shakespeare’s Macbeth were designed and built by Michael and Jane Eve for the company in 1959. They performed a sixty-minute version of the play and toured extensively across Germany, Italy, Australia and the United Kingdom.
This play about a prince of Denmark who seeks revenge against an uncle who killed his father and seized his father’s throne and wife is perhaps the most famous play in the English language. The play presents particular challenges for puppet artists in staging the indecisive prince’s long monologues inflicted by psychological conflicts. Puppet adaptations range in tone and intent—some wildly comical, others politically charged, or darkly psychological. In this exhibition you experience the substrates of Hamlet in out-of-ordinary scales such as a giant Ophelia, hand-puppet-sized cutouts, and a toy-theater incarnation of Laurence Olivier as Hamlet.
Olivier's Toy Theater Hamlet