Pup­peteers do jus­tice to French poet

The Star Early Edition - - NEWS - ORIELLE BERRY

IT’S EX­TRA­OR­DI­NARY to watch a per­for­mance and be trans­ported mag­i­cally to an­other world; a world where song, pup­pets and clever im­agery in­no­va­tively bring to life the lilt­ing, de­scrip­tive po­etry of a great French poet.

Arthur Rim­baud (1854-1891) is rev­ered as one of the most in­flu­en­tial po­ets of all time, and con­sid­ered the orig­i­nal en­fant ter­ri­ble of West­ern lit­er­a­ture and a child ge­nius of 19th cen­tury lit­er­a­ture. He crammed the body of his work into a few in­tense years of writ­ing, his first poem crafted at the age of 16.

At the equally ten­der age of 21, he aban­doned his work as a poet to pur­sue a life of travel through Europe, and ended up in Africa as a trader be­fore re­turn­ing to France where, after ail­ing for years but mis­di­ag­nosed, he suc­cumbed to can­cer at the age of 37.

As a man of let­ters, he cre­ated one of the most for­mi­da­ble cul­tural le­ga­cies, with the likes of lu­mi­nar­ies such as Dy­lan Thomas, Bob Dy­lan, An­dré Bre­ton, Henri Cartier-Bres­son, Jack Ker­ouac, Vladimir Nabokov, Patti Smith, Henry Miller and Van Mor­ri­son all in­spired by his po­etry.

It must be quite a chal­lenge, con­sid­er­ing the im­mense body of work that al­ready ex­ists in the form of mu­sic, film and opera, to do fur­ther jus­tice to Rim­baud, but the col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Naomi van Niek­erk, pup­pet de­signer Yoann Pen­colé and mu­si­cian Ar­naud van der Vliet has come up trumps.

Van Niek­erk stands at a light desk and, with the sim­ple but ef­fec­tive use of tools such as sand, a comb, drops of ink and trans­paren­cies, paints beau­ti­ful pic­tures that are screened over­head, as the alchemy of the words of Rim­baud’s po­etry are ex­pres­sively trans­lated by Van der Vliet to melo­di­ous and haunt­ing songs, while Pen­colé al­ter­nates be­tween reading some of the po­ems in French and mov­ing two pup­pets atop a wall.

Rim­baud was a master in en­vis­ag­ing what he wrote: from golden wheat fields, to the lush­ness of the Ar­dennes coun­try­side where he grew up, the sea, chang­ing in colour from moody grey to a deep blue to a sun-re­flected red. One of his great­est po­ems, Le Bateau ivre (The Drunken Boat), de­scribes the drift­ing and sink­ing of a boat lost at sea in a frag­mented first-per­son nar­ra­tive that is awash with vivid im­agery and sym­bol­ism, ideal ma­te­rial for the three to in­ter­pret, which they do in the open­ing scene to great ef­fect, im­mers­ing the au­di­ence from the word go.

In the beau­ti­fully de­scrip­tive poem The Sleeper in the Val­ley, a sol­dier in a field is de­scribed: “open-mouthed, bare headed/with the nape of his neck bathed in cool blue cresses,/Sleeps, he is stretched out on the grass, un­der the sky,/Pale on his green bed where the light falls like rain,” which Van Niek­erk im­ages on the screen.

She works in front of the au­di­ence, as she does through­out the show, in this in­stance su­per­im­pos­ing trans­paren­cies of the sol­dier.

CAME UP TRUMPS: Naomi van Niek­erk and Yoann Pen­colé in

VIVID IM­AGERY: A scene from The Alchemy of Words, com­bin­ing an­i­ma­tion and pup­petry.

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