Edinburgh Fringe 2013
Can the way we kill animals tell us anything about how we deal with our own demise? In a former veterinary demonstration room, two knackermen investigate the pitfalls of being high up the evolutionary chain. Combining puppetry, new writing and documentary material this show tells a moving and darkly comic tale about the only certainty in life: death and how it’s become removed from us as a process.
In their new show, Untied Artists, headed up by Jake Oldershaw, explore the difficult subject of death, using the work of a knackerman (someone who puts down horses) as an allegory for our feelings and attitudes towards the end of life. The venue couldn’t be more fitting, in the excellent Summerhall, which used to be a veterinary college; we are led out the back to the ‘Demonstration Room’. This dirty old room, with high, hard, lecture theatre seating, looking down on the small dissection area was evocative and appropriate for a play that saw a horse (puppet) killed and dismembered in front of us time and time again.
I very much enjoyed the naturalism that characterised the style of much of the play. It is so seldom at the fringe festival that you see a show with a complicated set, and with fringe theatre in general so much is representational or mimed. It was therefore strangely refreshing to have the actors washing their hands in a real sink with real water, cooking onions on a real gas stove or mixing up a bowl of real dog food. The smells filtered through the theatre, evoking atmosphere in a very effective way. The stage setup, littered as it was with domestic objects also worked very well with the non-naturalistic elements of the piece. Periodically throughout the show, one of these objects would be opened up, and attention would be drawn to the fact that it looked like a lit building. We would then be told a brief story of the person within who was dealing with an aspect of death, until the light was extinguished and the performer moved on.
The real star of the show was perhaps the horse puppet. Lying prostrate on the floor as we entered the room, it was a full-size replica of a small horse, covered in a patchwork of horse-blankets as its skin. To operate it, the beast was connected to a pulley on its back, which was controlled by one of the performers, whilst the other operated the head. It was an incredibly impressive device – the puppet was made of a bamboo frame, with jointed legs (much like the War Horse puppets), and the puppeteers emulated the movements of the horse to great effect. As the horse was so life-like, this also brought the audience closer to the reality of death, when in front of our eyes it was put down, bled out, skinned, and dismembered.
In the programme notes we are told that the piece was written to explore our disconnection with death, the pre-packaged meat on our supermarket shelves, life expectancy and the differing perspective people may have if they’re in a profession that deals with death every day. In some ways this was explored, although I feel there wasn’t much said about our modern meat industry and the distance the average person feels from what they’re eating. However, as these are all such huge subjects to deal with in one performance I am glad they focused it a bit more on themes of human and animal euthanasia, the right to die and letting those animals we kill die with dignity. This challenging subject was explored sensitively, subtly and without a trace of morbidity. Both Oldershaw and the other performer, Jack Trow were excellent, and I especially enjoyed the puppetry Trow did with the small terrier, where I could have easily believed the naturalism had gone a step too far by bringing a real animal onstage.
Though small-scale, this was a high spec performance, skilfully performed and sensitively crafted. If you can catch it during its short run here in Edinburgh I would highly recommend you get a ticket.