Edinburgh Fringe 2019
This wordless piece courageously aims to retell a Greek myth about a man who is stuck in a never-ending cycle of pushing a boulder up a hill through puppetry, live music, animation and movement. It has a strong visual style and features solid performances from the puppeteers and musicians who are all impressively in sync with one another.
The show begins with a visual introduction to the myth of this colossal stone by showing the audience an animated map of the boulder at the top of a hill. Soon, the protagonist appears – a man represented by a type of Kuruma ningyō puppet which clips onto one of the puppeteer’s feet and is manipulated with the help of one more puppeteer to great effect. The story soon settles into its inherently repetitive rhythm of the man trying to push the boulder to the top of the hill but his efforts are futile and every morning the situation resets and he tries again. The audience can see that with every failed attempt, the protagonist is worn down even further and battles with his very existence. This is all scored by an atmospheric original soundtrack and supported by segments of charming hand-drawn animation.
The plot is not the strongest feature of this play – it is more about showing the potential of puppetry and evoking a mood rather than conveying a complex story. This show is a character study of the puppet protagonist and it is fascinating to see how he moves and expresses frustration at his perpetually disappointing reality. The pace changes a little towards the end and the tension rises but the denouement is a touch disappointing.
The cast of four – two puppeteers, a vocalist/guitarist and a cellist – all give strong performances and, crucially in a work of puppetry, all seem well in tune with one another. The quality of movement with the puppets is high and there is a good use of different scales, however, it is not always clear what the action is trying to convey. Design-wise, it is lovely to see the mechanics of the puppet on display and the boulder itself is wittily transformative, changing shape to be the hill, back to the boulder and even folding out to be a shadow puppet theatre. The set and costume design is simple but thematic with stylised steel trees and fabrics of muted tones.
The piece is complimented by original music which features live ethereal vocals and driving cello. Also contributing heavily to the atmosphere and story-telling is the animation which is well-crafted and added a crucial extra layer to the piece. Music and animation also helped to soften some of the transitions in the show, of which there were perhaps too many. Many elements of the play required quite technical procedures to execute – reconfiguring the boulder and re-clipping the puppet to the puppeteer’s feet – and these interrupted the flow a little.
As a puppeteer, I was impressed with the high standard of puppeteering and the character the performers managed to convey through the puppets. I thought the design was well-considered and evoked an appropriately barren and desolate world but, personally, I felt the design of the puppet could be a little more complete. The story was simple and there was clearly a philosophical element but I found it hard to connect and the level of repetition was a little overwhelming.
Overall, Boulder is an ambitious piece of puppetry theatre with good design elements and engaging performance. It is held together by beautiful small moments of breath in the puppet, harmonies in the music and texture in the animation but as a whole it may need to find more dynamism in the narrative.
I would recommend this show as a very good introduction to puppet theatre and the suspension of belief that puppetry can create.