Photo - Amelia Dowd
Funny and endearing one moment, utterly horrifying the next. Gothic in atmosphere but contemporary in its staging. An equal mix of the most dreadful parts of human nature and the most beautiful. The Timely Death of Victor Blott by Brisbane’s Dead Puppet Society is full of these intelligent and deliberate contradictions. But the biggest one of all is that the character at the centre of the most gorgeous and confronting moments in this play, and the one who makes us feel the most for him, is a tiny wooden puppet called Victor.
Director David Morton and writer Elizabeth Millington hoped to experiment with the way in which an audience could empathise with and connect to a “dead object” like Victor, who’s controlled by 3 puppeteers and acts alongside the human characters of Mr and Mrs Blott, his mother and father. And it’s an incredibly successful experiement. Standing at only thigh height in his gray pyjamas, all wide-eyes, expressive miniscule hands and a head almost always tipped in wonder, the puppeteers and their director imbue Victor with so much humanity and warmth that you can’t help but feel connected to him.
And that’s what makes this play all the more moving to watch. Because Victor is a medical and magical marvel that most of the world just wants to cut open and explain. Born without a heart, (in a very clever, stylised birth scene using shadowplay against a huge white sheet), baby Victor is not expected to live very long and his mother is advised (even by her own husband) not to touch the baby or become too attached. But she does, and through her love and belief and Victor's own unexplained and unexplainable magic, he lives and lives and lives. Until his 10th year, when his scientist father (a man who can’t understand Victor’s existence and therefore can’t show him the love he so craves) decides to allow a wealthy doctor to examine the little boy and make the poverty-stricken family some money in the process.
There were audible cries of distress from the audience as the monstrously jolly doctor (played by Chris Vernon) performed these “examinations” on the little puppet. Victor obviously felt very real, and so very fragile, to most of us.
These experiments, that continue over the course of the play and get steadily worse, are some of the most distressing scenes I’ve ever witnessed in a show. I was in the audience with a group of school-age girls and they were extremely disturbed and upset. This is not a show for children or anyone under around 15. It’s just too confronting, and too well done in its gothic intensity.
But believe me, there are moments of beauty as well, especially in the lighting, sound and stage design. Numerous lightbulbs hang from the ceiling to represent the fireflies that Victor befriends in the cold, dank laundry in which his father forces him to live. When he reaches out to these fireflies with his little puppet hands, the lightbulbs emit a golden flash, which is a magical effect. This is an excellent contrast to the rest of the lighting (designed by Whitney Eglington), which is cold, dark and gray, to represent the lonely, unwelcoming Bott house.
The stage design is dark and austere. Plumes of smoke erupt from the ceiling between scenes, evoking an era in which steam power, progress, scientific discovery and explanation were all that mattered, and feelings, individuals and magic fell by the wayside. The charcoal sketches used throughout the show (again projected onto large, white sheets) are representative of the show itself; equal parts macabre and charming.
The sound design by Tony Brumpton and Guy Gimpel creates an eerie atmosphere. A lilting, wistful song plays in the background of almost every scene, sometimes puntuated by blasts of discordant yet beautiful sound (for example, when Victor communes with his fireflies). The use of an unexplained girl's voice as narrator is also haunting and adds that extra touch of mystery.
The black costumes and the stark paled faces and blackened eyes of the live actors complete the atmosphere. I love the way that costume designer Noni Harrison gave each costume its own special touch, like a peplum waist, or a ruffled collar. It's a little thing, but this is a show made up of the little things, and combined they create such a rich atmosphere.
The acting of the "human characters" is also filled with subtlety. As Mrs Blott, Elizabeth Millington is the heart and conscience of the play and she is passionate and emotive, while also displaying the appropriate restraint that represents the more formal time in which the play is set. Kieran Law as Mr Bott represents science, discovery and practicality. His coldness, his often heartless attitude to his son is painful to watch, but Law is extremely good at showing us the torment and frustration that lies at the centre of his character.
Chris Vernon as The Doctor is the evil element in this play and he is the catalyst for all that goes wrong. Vernon is diabolical as the doctor who sees Victor as a vessel to be explored, rather than a little boy. His scenes go from being jolly and charming to dismaying in their heartlessness. His laugh, that initially incited parallel giggles from the audience, eventually sent a chill through my heart.
The final commendation must go to the three puppeteers (Courtney Stewart, Bianca McIntyre, Anna Straker) who bring Victor to life. I imagine it would be hard enough for just one person to control and inhabit a puppet, but watching these three women work together is incredible. They move with such synchronised and flowing actions and they are so attuned to each other and to Victor as a character that you can almost forget that they are there (which would be the mark of an excellent puppeteer, one would assume).
At just 70 minutes The Timely Death of Victor Blott is a simple story with the most magical of messages. Go and see it for all the little details, not least of which is the amazing tiny puppet that lies at its heart.
Dead Puppet Society presents
The Timely Death of Victor Blott
by David Morton and Elizabeth Millington | adapted by Maxine Mellor
Directed by David Morton
Venue: Sue Benner Theatre | Metro Arts
Dates: Wed 5 - Sat 22 May 2010
Times: Wed - Sat @ 7:30pm
Artist Talk: Wed 12 May 2010
Tickets: Adults $20/ Conc. $16/ Preview $12/ Group (10+) $12
Bookings: (07) 3002 7100 | www.metroarts.com.au