Over the past 10 years, puppetry has grown up and moved into the theatre mainstream. Just think of director Nicholas Hytner’s National Theatre hit, His Dark Materials, or the Sesame Street-inspired West End musical, Avenue Q, where the puppets (operated by hands and rods on stage) lead very adult lives and experience very adult emotions.
Now a new puppet show aimed at adults is coming to London, one that has just three actors controlling 26 characters, and is so dark it includes a figure of Adolf Hitler.
Fabrik: The Legend of M. Rabinowitz is being staged by the New York company Wakka Wakka Productions, which has been brought to the UK by the Jewish Community Centre.
The play tells the true story of Jewish businessman Moritz Rabinowitz who moved to the Norwegian town of Haugesund from Poland after the pogroms of 1911.
“His father was a rabbi but he wanted a more secular life,” says Gaby Brechner, one of three thirtysomethings who run the fringe-theatre company.
“He and his family were the first Jews in the town. He built up a clothing empire and he was an incredible social activist. He wrote articles about the state of the economy after the First World War. He wrote about the case for the Jewish homeland and the conflict in the Middle East.
“There’s one piece of written testimonial that says he could sweep listeners away with a tidal wave of oratory. ”
The play, in which the actors wearing dark suits and hats operate the hand-and-rod puppets, charts Rabinowitz’s attempt to escape from the Nazis who targeted him because of his revolutionary ideas.
“He was the number one Jew in Norway that the Germans went for,” says Brechner, who is herself Jewish and whose colleague, puppet-maker Kirjan Wagge, is Norwegian.
“They thought he was the leader of the resistance, which is hilarious because he didn’t know any other Jews apart from his own family.”
Brechner, whose father ran a Jewish theatre in New York, says that, although the subject is a serious one, the play features plenty of laugh-out-loud moments.
She and her colleagues are particularly excited at the prospect of performing in front of a British audience.
“When someone called and said: ‘Hi, would you like to come to a theatre dedicated to puppets’, and it was a Jewish organisation, and it was in London … it was just perfect,” she says.
Puppetry may have come a long way from its Sooty and Sweep days, but Brechner still gets some funny looks when she explains what she does for a living.
“When you say you work in puppetry for adults, people don’t understand. They say: ‘What’s that? Like pornographic?’. Whether or not you like it is irrelevant — it’s the quality of work that sets it apart.”