Camden Fringe 2010
There’s nothing quite like a good puppet show, especially one that twists the concept in original and intriguing ways, and Occasionally Ovid is certainly an example of this: a fun, raunchy and quite peculiar take on some of Ovid’s stories, remarkably performed by Helen Ainsworth. It is all a bit excessive and a bit mad, as is only fitting for puppet theatre, although my concern here isn’t the rudeness or grotesqueness of it all: it’s just a lot to take in in an hour! That, and the rather complex set changes between the myths did slow the show down considerably, but this is only a minor distraction from Helen Ainsworth’s beautifully bizarre puppets and exceptional ability to bring them to life. This is a must for puppet fans, and a great show to introduce yourself to this art-form if not: not to be missed.
Did you watch puppet shows when you were younger? It’s one of those performance styles that never quite leaves your system; I personally am half-fascinated and half-disturbed by puppet shows: something about them is intensely enjoyable, while they also give me the shivers! In this case, the shivers are fully warranted: Helen Ainsworth’s show Occasionally Ovid does not shy away from some of the more horrible aspects of Greek mythology, and the puppets and performance style seem to reflect this tongue-in-cheek horror all too closely. While this show is excellently performed and written, the whole thing is a bit of a smorgasbord of horrors: not too much to take on their own, but all together a bit of a sandpapering of the soul.
The myths recounted here are standard Greek fare: the man cursed for his actions against the Gods, the youth trying to prove himself and failing, and the lusty dalliances of a prince and the consequences thereof. These are stories we’ve all heard and seen in various guises before, but their re-tellings here are all the better for it: any confusion that may have resulted from the constant puppet swapping and occasional moments where it isn’t quite clear what is going is this simply and handily avoided. Although, it must be said, these moments are few and far between: the puppet handling by Helen Ainsworth is exceptionally accomplished. Swapping accents and big puppets (with plenty of cloth folds to get lost in) should be harder, but she breezes through it with the greatest of ease, any moments of confusion glossed over excellently with in-character remarks that just add to the surreality of it all.
However, we shouldn’t just judge Helen Ainsworth on her ability to gloss over moments that may be a little slow: this is truly puppetry at its finest. Moments with more than one puppet at a time are rarely confusing or mismanaged, each character has refined body-work as well as a puppet to give it character, and some moments are truly inventive, at no point moreso than when she breaks her own neck (having become a character herself), saws it off and puts it in a pot to cook (including a great joke where the head doesn’t quite fit): sublimely well performed.
Of course, this would all be irrelevant if it weren’t for the quality of the puppets, which were also designed by the performer: an excellent mixture of grotesque and realistic, never too grim or too simplistic but just perfect for the tone of the show. Not only do these look the part, they also become an important part of the performance, with detachable body parts and specially moveable sections to highlight certain character traits or further the plot. It is particularly inspiring to see an artist who can create such quality tools for her own performances: if only all performers were so multi-talented!
This is such an accomplished show that I regret to find fault with it, but it wasn’t quite as slick as it could have been: the scene changes were long and unimaginative (we were even told to ‘talk amongst ourselves’), and while I appreciate that the puppets were bulky and unwieldy when not being used to perform, it was a shame that the mystique didn’t hold up all the way through. Also, while each individual story was pretty grim and the content in each was rather gruesome, this wasn’t as huge an issue as Helen Ainsworth seemed to fear. The feelings of revulsion only started to become an issue after the third piece: it was just so much gruesomeness in one go! Maybe less or longer pieces that are more interconnected would have made this all a bit easier to take.
In the end, this is a puppet show for adults, although I fear it may stray a bit far into adult territory over the course of the entire piece. However, that is just personal preference: from a purely theatrical background, this is very accomplished stuff, both in performance and design, and, if a little slicker, would be receiving top accolades. If you’ve never given puppet shows a chance, this is the show to introduce you to how effective they can be: if you like puppet shows, you’ll know this already, and should be there already!