One of the things I like about puppetry is how it lets performers go further than they can when working with just humans. Puppets can fly easily, their heads can come off (and keep talking); with puppets, there’s no reason why “real bears” can’t have houses and make porridge. For this reason, I was more inclined than not to believe the publicity materials for The Fantasist, which said it explored “the murky depths and glorious heights of bipolar disorder.” I’ve known a lot of people with this problem, and I thought that puppetry could really allow the performance to get to places it might have had a hard time managing just using people (not that the puppets weren’t manipulated by people!), and had high hopes for a good show. Or, you know, it could be exploitative, or cutesy, or overly condescending; but my fingers were crossed.
As it turns out, this show rated the hype, and was, in fact, even better than I’d imagined … solidly grounded in the reality of bipolar disorder, yet able to communicate the lived experience to the audience in a way that had me tearing up and was imaginative and thoughtful. The center of the play is Louise (Julia Yevnine), a young woman whose brain is taking her for a ride. Sometimes she’s barreling along at exhilarating speeds, some times slowing to a pace approaching that of growing trees (nicely illustrated by having people speak quickly when Louise makes this switch). Her fears, paranoias, and delusions are captured at times as puppets speaking to her, but at other times simply by the refusal of the furniture (or her body) to behave normally. Interspersed with the puppetry/manipulation bits are scenes where she is visited by her NHS carer as well as a friend of hers: this allows us to see/mirror the difficulty “normal” people have in dealing with people who are bipolar, but also to see, in reality, what it looks like from the “outside” (taking medication, not getting medication, how to give advice/see things from a medical perspective).
It was clear from watching this what an incredibly messy life this is from the inside, and how isolating it can all be, when your head is working against you and making you act in ways that drive people away (Louise accidentally slapping her friend when she was startled being one example). You want to see Louise succeed when her artistic influences are in control, but it doesn’t change the fact that the frame of mind she’s in when she’s most inspired can also be very dangerous for her. And the loneliness … when one little puppet crawled in her lap and said, “I love you,” I nearly broke.
At the end, I was amazed to see that the puppeteers (Cat Gerrard and Julia Correa) had also been playing the other two women all along. It in some way added some additional psychological depth to the story, but, really, it didn’t need any more. The Fantasist was an excellent play that warmly rewarded the investment of one hour and twelve quid: I hope all nights are as full as the one I attended.
(This review is for a performance that took place at 7 PM on Thursday, October 31st, 2013. It continues through Saturday, November 2nd.)