Théâtre Volière have brought their show Evocation to the Fringe this year, a show filled with puppetry, poetry and film. The Student got to talk with writer Mick Wood, producer Natasha Wood and lead actress Audrey L’Ebrellec to discuss the meanings behind the show and the nineteenth century poetry from which it originates.
What does the title of your show mean? How does it tie in with what the audience see on the stage?
Mick: Évocation is based on some poems taken from Albert Giraud. Giraud was a Belgian symbolist poet of the fin de siècle, and he became very popular at the time. In fact his poems were taken by [the composer Albert] Schoenberg for his Pierrot Lunaire song cycle, which most people know about the work through. But they were translated into German by someone else, and not many people actually read the Giraud poems now. A while back, we were doing show in which his poems cropped up. The only translation I had read of them, in English, made them seem rubbish. It was a really prosaic translation. So I became really fascinated by them and tried to work out what it was about those poems that appealed to people of that period. Gradually, when you start reading and translating them, you realise that it is like a little window into the mentality of the people of the time. When we decided to create a show around the poems, we searched for a representative poem that you can hang the piece on. There is a poem in the sequence by Giraud called Évocation, and in it he summons up a kind of ‘goddess of poetry’ but she is not a nice, polite goddess. She is horrendous. The words of Évocation say ‘Oh Madonna of Hysteria, Rise on the altar of my verse’ and it says to show the world her son with all his ‘putrid flesh’ hanging off him. To me, it seemed like a kind of pre-cursor as to what was about to come with the First World War and the Second World War and the whole horror of the twentieth century. So that was the starting point. This piece has to seem like a ritual moment in which somebody is getting a premonition of what’s to come. When you start reading the poems like that, you can find it throughout all of them. So it is really fascinating.
What is it like performing in a show in which you are either delivering a monologue or speaking to puppets? What is that like to act out and perform?
Audrey: Well as you said there are two different parts. There is the dialogue with the hand puppets… that is actually really easy because we do that in real life. When it’s the poems, sometimes it was really coming across as a monologue and sometimes it was talking to the puppets. It can seem like there is always such a huge gap between what I am saying and what I am actually doing, but in my brain it makes complete sense. Inside she [the character] is building up and repeating herself… funnily enough, it was easier to perform the play in English than in French!
Mick: The poems were written in a form called a rondel, which is a very ancient form of French poetry. The thing about rondels is that they feature repeated lines, so again going back to that point of Évocation, there is a kind of mantra. There is a repetition, an obsessive mantra-like feel to it. It is quite hypnotic.
Audrey: She is always repeating what is happening. She is stuck there. I also feel that English is more melodic [than French]. It makes it more like a song. It is melodic; always turning, turning, and turning.
Mick: It is interesting what Audrey touched on there because there is a problem for translations of French verse into English. English is a percussive language, so we measure our poetry in feet, and in stressed and unstressed syllables. French is a syllabic-counted language, so in their poetry they count syllables and not feet. They try not to stress syllables as much, and they try to make the language flow. So when you are trying to get the feeling of that flowing Debussy-esque feeling of French, that is really difficult in English to obtain.
Was that something that you had to be mindful of in your translations of the poems?
Mick: Yeah. There is a very strict rhyming structure in rondels, which I could have rejected, but I wanted them to sound [like rondels]. I think that was really important to get the music of the period in the play. It was difficult, but what I tried to do was pick English words that had their roots in French. Any English word that ends in ‘ion’ has its roots in French. I tried to use them wherever possible, because they flow freely.
Natasha: But you had to use the verbs differently to the way that the sentence goes too, so it was really hard to get the rhyming because the verb is in a different place in English to in French. It’s fun… I love translating. It is a kind of particular skill when you can speak two languages. It’s like a kind of jigsaw puzzle.
The staging in Evocation is quite ingenious. It is basically a cube-shaped frame with different curtains…
Natasha: It’s like a puppet theatre. Well, actually it’s a bit bigger than a puppet theatre.
Audrey: Well technically the puppet theatre is only the curtain you see with the red and white, because it is the one that they used for Punch and Judy. The staging would be called castellane.
How long did it take you to get the hang of using that, and working the puppets too? Had you performed with puppets before?
Audrey: No. I had a month of rehearsals. I had met the puppet company six months before we actually started rehearsing, so they had an idea about how I could actually move around objects. One week in February, we didn’t try to do rehearsals or anything. We just has a workshop and I moved some puppets just so I could get used to that. Then I had an entire month to rehearse the play, create everything and learn how to use the puppets. I have two different kinds of puppets, so there are two different techniques, and then there are three different hand puppets. So there are three different characters, so I need to make sure that they are looking at everybody and they are looking at me, and that they are moving. I also had to do stretching of my fingers for six months, so that the gap between my fingers gets bigger and they are more flexible. So six months before rehearsing, I had to get trained. You cannot really see it, but puppetry is really physical. I had to double the muscle in my arms and legs and everything. It may look like I am not moving them, but it is because my muscles are actually really tensed.
There were moments where, when you held two puppets at once, you were one character and either arm was another character. That must have required a great amount of control.
Audrey: It did require control. Moving the puppets, the audience cannot enjoy them if they are not controlled, so I need to show them that my arm is one character and my body is me. My body can be crazy, but my arm needs to be really restrained.
Natasha: It got very hard when your arm started to hurt.
Audrey: That was during rehearsals, in the scene with the Priest. Because I had to stay in one position holding my Priest for a very long time before he actually goes around me… when you rehearse and are sitting down for twenty minutes, your arm actually does ache.
Mick: Audrey had to learn new skills as an actor and I had to learn new skills as a writer. In the first draft of the play that I presented, I had given the puppets longer speeches, and Eric the director said ‘you can’t do that’ Puppets can’t have long speeches because the audience will just get bored’. I thought about it and I was like ‘yeah, you’re probably right actually’.
Was it a bit surreal building an on-stage relationship with a puppet?
Audrey: They are my babies! Especially the big one. I love the big one that goes on my shoulder. I’m very protective of my puppets.
Natasha: She wouldn’t let me bring them to the show. I said that I could do it, but she wouldn’t let me.
So you’re the only person allowed to touch them?
Audrey: Yes! [Laughs]
Natasha: We are going to pay for therapy afterwards, but we are just going with it at the moment!
How did you go about building a relationship with them that the audience can believe?
Audrey: Well at the beginning I wasn’t rehearsing with the puppets… so just with the names, I had to build an idea of the character who is there with me. When I had the puppets, it was really easy because they have lots of characteristics and you can see that straight away. The priest is big with a big red nose and looks like Jack Nicholson – that was really not intended! And the father looks like Christopher Lee. It is really a case of learning about their physicality. Their eye lines are all really different, and then the father has his head more looking down… for me, [the differences] are really clear. Their physicalities then extend to thinking something like ‘okay, I am going to feel you, I am going to move you, and then I might feel something’. But I already knew the words… so it was a case of feeling something, then hearing the words. Kind of the opposite to talking to a real person.
Had you performed the show before coming to the Fringe this year?
Natasha: No. This has been created for Edinburgh.
So I just saw the first time it has ever been performed?
Natasha: Yes, and it was a little bit stressful! One of the lights blew. That wasn’t our fault!
Why did you all want to come to Edinburgh and to the Fringe?
Mick: For me, it is a nostalgic thing. I have played in Edinburgh three times, but the last time I played was twenty years ago and before that, the first time was almost thirty years ago. Obviously it has changed a lot since then. I remember what Edinburgh [Fringe] used to be like before the rise of the stand-up comedians, and the professionalism has seeped into it a little bit… well, there have always been professionals, but commercialisation, that’s how to put it. It is no criticism of it. Things change. But I really used to like it on those days when you got pieces of work that were completely out there and people just really taking a risk with it. I wanted the whole company to experience that feeling again. Its almost like being kids again or back at university. Young and playing around with ideas. I was really pleased when I came up here and I looked through the things that are on. It is great… people are so much more enthusiastic and more willing to give stuff a try here than almost anywhere else. We are going to do the show next February as well. It’s a big project. We are taking over a theatre in central London for a month, and we are going to do a season of work about borderlands in Europe. We are doing a couple of shows in it and we are bringing in other people as well who are either from borderlands, or doing shows about borderlands.
Natasha: I came here years ago as well. I played here, played Reggie Cray in a kind of feminist two-hander, and I came up last year with my kids. We had just come up from living in France for ten years… I thought to myself that ‘Edinburgh is just so mad, it will be exhausting, and it is so much money’ and all the rest of it. I came up with my two boys, and we had two days. I let them choose, and we ended up seeing eleven shows in that time. It made me feel so happy. My country [the UK]… it is going through a difficult time. It is just so refreshing to come up here. It’s fantastic, because art is so important. It’s so important that they try things out, and they don’t feel that they always have to do something that is safe commercially. Here they can do that. You can go into some weird room upstairs somewhere and see something that is fantastic, that makes you want to weep or laugh. It is a very special atmosphere, and it is worth all the effort that people put in to come here. This is Audrey’s first time as well, so it is very precious.
First time at the Fringe, or the first time in Edinburgh?
Audrey: First time at the Fringe. I was in Edinburgh two weeks ago for a wedding. But that was the first time! I have been really excited since the beginning. I was told in November ;do you want a job?’ and I was like ‘yes! I want to go to Scotland’. I love it here. I am really happy I’m here.
In three words, how would you NOT describe your show?
Natasha: Lightweight, ironic, commercial.
Audrey: Boring, non-European, non-feminist.
Mick: For small children.
theSpace on the Mile (Venue 39)
Until 26th August
Photo credit: Jolly Good Show