The Pit, London EC2
Opened 29 April, 2004

The emotional zenith of Ronnie Burkett's Provenance is a pretty long, very brutal scene in which a young man is raped near a World War I battlefield. The fact that the victim is two feet high and made of wood doesn't make it more bearable. Rather the reverse: because we have seen puppeteer Burkett take such care with the figure of Tender, gently manipulating what is literally his own creation, this sudden cruelty is the more disturbing.

The company name is the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes, and Burkett (now based in Toronto) is a superlative marionettist, but he goes beyond the one technique. For the first ten minutes, he uses stringless figures which he moves directly by hand. A little later, he dons a headband to which is attached the miniature head of one of the show's characters in one sense, Burkett's own body becomes the rest of the puppet; in another, the "head rig" is simply a badge to denote that he is acting in this character instead of simply voicing her. Later still, he lays a figure away but continues to speak in that character for a couple of minutes without any artificial mediation whatever.

Just as he flows easily and seamlessly between various techniques, so the subject matter and emotional registers in this uninterrupted two-hour solo performance are rich and dense, from camp comedy to unabashed sentiment to the disquieting violence already mentioned. Much of the comic material in particular is at such high speed that if you laugh at one sharp line, you miss another.

In the present day, eccentric art historian Pity Beane uncovers the history of the painting that has obsessed her since childhood, prompting flashbacks to jazz-age Paris, inter-war Vienna and a Canadian high-school locker-room among other times and places. The vocabulary of art "provenance", "gaze" serves as metaphor for how we relate to one another: the ways in which we own each other, how we perceive beauty and where. It's a remarkably fecund piece of work.

At times it's also frankly overwritten, but this adds to the overall texture rather than damaging it, and the intensity generated is sufficient to carry an audience past any such reservations. It also still feels a little too long, but in the sense of containing too much to take all in rather than of indulgence or longueur. To be captivated by Burkett, with or without puppets, you simply need to obey the show's opening words: "Follow my voice."

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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