[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/3793?ns=guardian&pageName=Blind+Summit%27s+puppet+state%3AArticle%3A1311316&ch=Stage&c3=Guardian&c4=Theatre%2CGeorge+Orwell%2CStage%2CCulture+section&c6=Maddy+Costa&c7=09-Nov-29&c8=1311316&c9=Article&c10=Feature&c11=Stage&c13=&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FStage%2FTheatre[/img]Blind Summit's puppets regularly upstage the actors they appear with. Will 1984, their Orwellian new show, be different?
Blind Summit's puppets are wily, untrustworthy things, for ever outsmarting their human handlers. It's a recurring theme in the theatre company's work, and it was especially true of the characters they created for the late film-maker Anthony Minghella's first opera, a production of Madam Butterfly, at the English National Opera in 2005. Their puppets became a cause celebre; for one reviewer, they were "the most authentic characters on the stage".
The same thing happened when Mark Down and Nick Barnes – Blind Summit's director and designer respectively – collaborated with Complicite on Shun-Kin, a story of love and mutilation, and when they made daemons for a revival of the National theatre's His Dark Materials. Even when the shows were panned, the puppets were deemed exquisite. Choreographer Akram Khan has just invited the pair to work with him on Gnosis. Perhaps he should think again, if he doesn't want to be upstaged.
Down and Barnes have been so busy surreptitiously stealing other people's shows, they haven't had a chance to devise one of their own since 2005, when they made Low Life, a darkly humorous cabaret of vignettes inspired by the writings of Charles Bukowski, starring puppets who were by turns argumentative, melancholy and seductive. This winter, however, Blind Summit are returning to the stage in their own right, with 1984, an adaptation of George Orwell's novel.
It's easy to see what attracted them to the book: set in a dictatorship, it focuses on a man discovering the extent to which he is manipulated by the state. But Down and Barnes are subverting expectations – only one of their main characters is played by a puppet, and 40 minutes of the show will pass before he even appears.
In this production, they explain, they wanted text and human action at the fore, not puppetry. "We made Low Life to answer a puppet agenda, to say puppets can be grown-up, and entertain people," says Down. "Since then, we've done lots of work with people who had just one puppet in their show, and we started to feel jealous. To begin with, we banned the word 'puppet' from the rehearsal room – and said we just have to trust that what we do will be our stuff."
Blind Summit's "stuff" is irreverent and anarchic, thoughtful and precise – a duality that reflects the two men. There is a rumpled, haywire quality to Down; Barnes is neater and more measured in appearance and speech. They met in 1997, when Down – who had qualified as a doctor before studying acting at London's Central School of Speech and Drama – took part in a workshop Barnes was directing. He found Barnes's approach "really exciting, like performance art, but with a purpose".Barnes, who studied theatre design at the Slade School of Fine Art, was trying to construct a show around some puppets he had made, but realised he wasn't much of a director– and that he had no idea how to operate a puppet. So he asked Down to h elp, and the result was the first Blind Summit show, Mr China's Son. It set the tone for the company, using small, beautifully sculpted puppets to tell an epic story of communist China and question the ways in which people are controlled.
Among the fans of the show was Carolyn Choa, Minghella's wife and his associate director and choreographer for Madam Butterfly. She telephoned Down in 2004, asking to meet. "We didn't realise Anthony was going to be there," says Barnes. In their naivety, says Down, they almost didn't take a bag of puppets along. "It was all really odd. Carolyn pulled a puppet out of the bag and just hugged it. Anthony didn't say anything – he was just taking pictures of the puppet. And we're going, 'Bloody hell, that's a real movie director! With Oscars!'" After a couple of days observing the pair in a rehearsal room, Minghella announced that he wanted their puppets to feature in Madam Butterfly. "I felt like I was four years old," says Down. "Three years later, I learned to relax in his company, almost."
Minghella involved the duo in every aspect of the production and rehearsal process. The experience boosted Blind Summit's stock – and their confidence. You don't worry about whether a puppet can entertain a crowd when you know it can keep an audience of 3,800 people at New York's Met Opera riveted.
It has also encouraged them to be more ambitious with 1984, and rethink their approach to puppetry. They have spent a year working on the show, during which, Down says, "we realised that language is the puppet in the story". He's referring to Orwell's fictional language Newspeak, which was designed to make rebellious thought impossible. He sees Newspeak as a representation of language, with all the limbs of language present, but none of its spirit. In the production, its key words are barked by the actors or shown on flashcards. Down is also exploring ways to get his seven actors to mimic the relationship between a puppet and its manipulator, so that each actor seems to need another cast member in order to function. "There is a scene in which one of the characters is working in his office, and the rest of the cast are holding everything he needs. A really interesting struggle occurs – of who's in charge of whom."
Blind Summit are benefiting from a change in attitudes to puppetry: Down says the transfer of War Horse, a hit at the National, to the West End "has been really important in terms of people realising that puppets can sell tickets". But he worries that it's not considered an adult medium: "War Horse is odd, because it has adults weeping over horses: I don't find that a grown-up thing."
"We've got nothing against children's shows," Barnes adds. They'd just rather spend their time with puppets that are a little bit louche, a little bit wild.1984 is at BAC, London, from Wednesday until 9 January. Box office: 020-7223 2223.
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Guardian: Blind Summit's puppet state
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