I wasn’t planning on writing this up, since I saw the second of its two performances at the Suspense Festival, but since they announced before the show that it is at the start of a tour … I will go ahead and throw my two cents in. I mean, I am (as a reviewer) a specialist in both puppetry and (to a lesser extent) opera … who better to provide an opinion?
Let’s be honest, although it was billed as “a monstrous chamber opera,” I did NOT take this seriously and thought it was a metaphor for an intimate show with a grotesque topic. No, I was quite wrong: Tarrare is very much an opera, performed with Bunraku-esque puppets, and sung by real live humans right there on stage (with a violinist and pianist providing accompaniment). I was not expecting singing, and I was not expecting it to go for 1:45 (with a 20 minute interval). And, while I was expecting Tararre (the puppet) to eat a bunch of strange things, I was not expecting him to choke them down like a cat hawking up a hairball, or, indeed, for him to vomit them back up again. This show was hard on the stomach.
Still, this unusual story, of am 18th century French man who was an sideshow attraction and spy, was an excellent choice for this format; no real actor could manage the feats Tarrare drew notoriety for, and the availability of actors with detachable ribcages and debilitating medical conditions is not as strong as one might expect even in London. So while Tarrare is being tortured in a (?) Prussian jail, we get to see him shit out the evidence (“He’s shitting/He’s shitting” definitely an opera lyric for the bucket list); and when he is with his sideshow friends, we get to hear two fantastic duets for conjoined twins (also a bucket list item in the opera world), which made me think that perhaps Geek Love might be a good choice for this group to take on next. Creatures in jars that can become singing and dancing parts of the cast is the kind of thing you’d expect only in puppetry; lead characters eating and vomiting up cats likewise benefitted from not being done by fleshly actors.
Musically, I found this actually quite digestible, with interesting falsetto singing from the two men (Daniel Harlock and Michael Longden) that didn’t quite hit the countertenor level of quality but which was still very serviceable, despite starting out a bit unintelligible: I wished for supertitles or a printed lyrics sheet.
But, you know, how was it as a PUPPET show? For me, despite the occasionally irritating sightlines (even from row 5, which unlike row 2 was elevated), the puppet movement was flawless: even the elongation and retraction of the necks of the twins had its own logic, and the shuffling of the fat baby puppet was utterly engrossing. Meanwhile the artistry of the puppets and various puppet bits was high quality and had a very finished, thought-out look to it; we were not fixed too strongly in history but were locked right in to humans with emotions that, in fact, transcended their highly limited physical forms – captured well in their faces, words and bodies.
Although my suspicion is that Tarrare the Freak will actually be continuing its evolution as it starts its tour, it is well worth seeing even in its current form. I’m glad I made the effort and I hope it does well as it reaches more audiences.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015 at the Suspense Festival in London.)