No Strings Attached

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Bristol Old Vic Director Tom Morris and the South African Handspring Puppet Company have joined forces once again to realize one of Shakespeare’s most popular and fantastical plays—their first collaboration since the hugely successful War Horse, a show that conquered the theatre world.

Dale Franzen, Director of The Broad Stage in Santa Monica, CA, is responsible for taking the show to Los Angeles and says A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the perfect play for the Handspring treatment:

“The play has illusion at its heart and the wonderful puppetry heightens the magical stirrings and transformations. The amazing ingenuity of director Tom Morris and the Handspring Puppet Company is the kind of groundbreaking work The Broad Stage wants to bring to its audience.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream takes place in a world where reality blurs with the mystic. This world is realized in a riotous display of irreverent comedy, in which anything can come to life and be transformed.

The puppetry involves a huge range of ground-breaking techniques and variety of creations—from the smallest mechanical creatures to the huge god-like masks and limbs that represent Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies.

Tom Morris says Handspring is “the greatest puppet company in the world…it’s a huge thrill to be able to collaborate with them on this experimental version of Shakespeare’s sexiest and most magical comedy.”

Handspring Puppet Theatre is the brainchild of Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones based in Cape Town, South Africa. The runaway hit War Horse established Handspring as one of the most important puppet companies in the world.

The genius behind Handspring—the complex cane sculpting and evocative artwork, together with the poetic micro-movement in performance—sees life-size (and bigger) puppets magically come alive.

Putting on a play incorporating both actors and puppets inevitably makes the project more complicated. Step one involved Handspring making a number of prototype puppets, initially from cardboard. When the size and shape of the play’s 20-odd puppets had been agreed upon, the team got to work making the puppets in wood, their preferred medium.

Some, such as the brightly painted Scary Fairy, operated by the fairy Cobweb (which changes from a sweet-looking creature into a scary one at the pull of a lever) are inspired by traditional Japanese puppets with transforming heads. Others, such as the tabletop puppet-lovers, have friction joints with weighted lead feet that can be walked around the stage by the actors. “I suppose it is something of a crazy approach,” says Morris of his plan to bring puppetry to a staging of the 400-year-old comedy. “But then again, so was War Horse.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream can be seen on Santa Monica’s The Broad Stage, April 3–20, 2014 ( The production then travels to the National Theater of Korea in Seoul.

Text by Ellen Georgiou
Photography by Simon Annand