The Four Seasons – A Reimagining: mesmerising storytelling

Photo Credit: Steve Tanner
Gyre & Gamble made their magic happens again at the evocative candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons – a Reimagining is a picturesque narrative, combining music and puppetry in a suggestive and truly human storytelling for all ages.

It is very hard practically to say whether the audience is watching a piece of theatre with evocative readapted music, or a musical performance accompanied on stage by beautifully concerted puppetry movements. The show is really an inextricable fusion of the two, a complex and original masterpiece.

Max Richter first recomposed Vivaldi’s concert in 2012. For its staging at the Shakespeare’s Globe, the work needed further readjustments, as the number of elements for the orchestra were reduced to six. Classics and synth tunes are mixed in a very effective modern readaptation. This provided also the right occasion to introduce the new harpsichord of the indoor playhouse.

Photo Credit: Steve Tanner
Inspired by the Japanese art of Bunraku theatre, directors Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié developed a universal plot of love, birth, departure, grief, and love again, lived out by the three main puppets/characters.

There are extras, like an endearing cat, darkening shadows, and cheerful butterflies. Postmen, friends and colleagues of the final sequence, are interpreted by the puppeteers themselves, in a natural involvement behind and in front of the strings.

“It’s a storytelling that feels quite timeless,” says artist Avye Leventis. “The themes it deals with are very human ones of love and loss. But it’s also optimistic and beautiful to look at.”

The simplicity of the narrative is striking though unquestionably universal. There is war, death, but also a tender bond between mother and son, an awkward first date and a loving relationship. Whether these events take various appearances or come at different stages in our lives, they are undeniably features ever present.

Craig Leo, one of the performers, points at the aesthetic of the puppets, which have been designed as blank canvases onto which the assembly can project their impressions. “The result – he explains - is that every audience member has their own experience of the story. For me it resonates with the current devastating conflict in the Middle East where families are being torn apart by war.”

The picture would be incomplete, though, without mentioning the beautifully refined decorations of the indoor playhouse. While The Globe opens up the stage, providing more engagement with the audience and the sky above - as the puppeteer Ben Thompson, who has performed in both spaces, remarks -, the Wanamaker is a magnificent intimate theatre which allows for small detailed work.

Gold and wooden browns are predominant, adding that varnish of sacredness to the cosy Jacobean theatre. The candlelit venue is charming for its warm regality, gifted by the candles and the painted ceiling. Real wax is not the only one to produce the soft relaxing light in the otherwise dark venue: the tables – which form a circle when joint - are a pleasing attraction per se, retro lit and turning on/off as by magic along the duration of the show.

Photo Credit: Steve Tanner
“It’s really a dialogue between us and the musicians,” says Ben Thompson. Talking about the main challenge of the project, in the artist’s answer, it was “allowing the music to really influence what happens to the characters rather than it becoming merely a soundtrack to the action.”

The aim, then, as also Avye Leventis observes, was not the predominance of one element over the other, but equal partnership of music and puppetry, into a smooth lively coordination.

The challenges are many in such a dramatic representation, actually more than the theatregoers may think. The evocative breathing of the puppeteers perfectly rendered the life of their creatures. The audience can see the strings, the inanimate body parts been moved and pushed, the actors all wearing black but still not invisible; yet, the dolls look alive, and the crumpled pieces of paper are convincing flowers, butterflies, and clouds.

Craig Leo explains that the performance is incredibly technical. “The challenge, he says, is managing this aspect of the work whilst still accessing emotional content and telling the story as clearly as possible without any text to help you.”

And teamwork plays a decisive role too, as Avye Leventis agrees.
“Each person brings their interpretation to that character,” continues Leo. “That collaborative effort and interpretation in bringing a figure to life is electric and alive in a way that makes for a rare and rich theatrical experience.” Each performer needs discipline, sharpness in his/her actions, but also to be always supportive towards the others.

Human acting and puppetry happen both on stage, concerting movements and drama. But, as Ben Thompson reminds us, when watching a puppet, “you need to use your imagination far more than with an actor; you need to imbue them with life in the first place.”

The content of the play becomes enriching and unforgettable as much as the tricks of strings and mechanisms are hidden and the tale flows smoothly. With Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons – A Reimagining, it is not only possible to dream and empathise with the blank characters, but to be brought on a higher and refined level of engagement. The show touches the chords of myth, by turning to an incredibly graceful storytelling.

In the rich and varied programmes of these latest two years at the Shakespeare’s Globe, Emma Rice couldn’t miss the astonishing art form of puppetry. The leaving Artistic Director offers in her last Winter Collection a real treat, for the eyes and the heart.

Dates: 9 March – 21 April 2018
Venue: Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare's Globe