One of the National Theatre of Great Britain's greatest successes has been their production of WAR HORSE, a co-production with South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company. The production ran in repertory for two seasons at the National and is now in a profitable long run on the West End. The stars of the show are the giant horse puppets but actors play the human characters. Can puppets be as successful in playing humans? Their faces cannot change and the voices have to come from the humans operating them. Handspring's most recent collaboration with the National is a play, OR YOU COULD KISS ME, written and directed by playwright-director-novelist Neil Bartlett. Bartlett has been for thirty years a key figure in gay literature and theater. He is not interested in conventional narrative but in experimental, almost deconstructive theater. OR YOU COULD KISS ME is a collaborative piece that is loosely based on the life story of the two founders of Handspring, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones (the program has a picture of them on a South African gay beach in 1971, the meeting place of A&B in the play, with the caption "This did happen"). A &B met and fell in love in South Africa in the 1970s. We see their meeting and their first kiss. But most of the play depicts their old age when A is ill with emphysema and B is his caretaker. Though the couple have lived together for over sixty years (it is 2036), they have never had a civil partnership (we are never told why) or even made wills. A is not only physically ill, but is going through the onset of senile dementia. A narrator gives a scientific description of what his brain is going through as we watch and hear A go through a catalog of symptoms.
Older and younger A and B (and their ancient, incontinent dog) are represented by puppets controlled by a team of seven men in dark suits who also supply the voices. Sometimes Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones represent themselves as middle-aged men looking toward their future. The charismatic actress Adjoa Andoh is the narrator and plays a variety of supprting characters (lawyer, doctor, housekeeper). The theater is once again in the kind of arena configuration it had for the magnificent EARTHQUAKES IN LONDON (design again by Rae Smith). A long, narrow stage ran diagonally across the floor with the audience sitting on all sides. Doors at either end and stairways onto the stage provided entrances and exits for the Anjoh, the puppets and the puppeteers. An accordianist provided the background music.
At the end of the intermissionless 105 minutes, the audience gave a long enthusiastic ovation that called the performers back four times. I wish I could say that I was that enthusiastic about the work. The script gave no sense of the dynamic of the ongoing relationship of these men. We only saw the beginning and the end. Why didn't they get a civil partnership or make wills? What was their life together like? With so little information, it was hard to care about them. In fact, if a chronology of A&Bs lives had not been provided in the program, I would know next to nothing about them. The lack of names may have been an effort to universalize them, but the namelessness also robbed them of individual interest. I would have been more interested in more of the real "this did happen" experience of Kohler and Jones than this presentation of what might happen to them. The alienation was increased by the puppets. These weren't giant horses, but human figures that were about four feet high. Often they were blocked from view by the three men running each puppet. Perhaps it is better to see this production from the balconies (we were in the front row). Puppets however cleverly created cannot express the range of emotion that a human actor can express. We felt that the dog puppet stole the show in great part because puppets are better at being animals than humans.
I would say that OR YOU COULD KISS ME was an interesting experiment but not a successful theater piece. It was refreshing to see a gay play that is about older gay people. What A and B go through is what many older couples gay and straight experience, but the subject has been treated better in other plays and films.
By the way, the National Plans to build a new, larger Cottesloe to open in 2012. I will miss the intimacy ot the present space.
OR YOU COULD KISS ME by Neil Bartlett and Handspring Puppet Company. Designed by Rae Smith. Nationa Theatre Cottesloe Theatre, October 4, 2010.