Puppeteers do justice to French poet
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.