Jungle drums, cogs and sprockets
There’s a lovely little volume called the London Jungle Book by a Gond artist called Bhajju Shyam, all about his trip to London (to decorate an Islington Indian restaurant). The Gonds are native jungle artists from central India who have a particular take on the world, whereby everything is seen in terms of their jungle domus, their dogs always know where they’re going, as do London buses which are seen as large red dogs, for instance. Londoners are pretty miserable during the day, but very jolly in the evening in pubs, when , in Islington at any rate , they tend to wear black. Rather like bats, thought Bhajju.
Well all this appealed to a certain Dr Stephen Guy, a historian turned devotee of mechanical automata. He is also a tutor and decided Bhajju’s publication would be a rather good project for his students. They could bring it to life by creating machines around the images of bats, dogs, buses etc. So they did, and created a remarkable show that was performed at the Horniman Museum in June, and gets a new lease of life when it appears in the CMT exhibition in Granada in November.
Now, you’d be excused if you guessed that Dr Guy was teaching at an engineering college or even an art school, but he isn’t. His seat of learning is the Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance (let me call it the Rose for short), as it’s known as of this term. His students are into Scenic Arts and he tells me that the Rose has has had a growing interest in mechanical theatre, so that a couple of years ago they appointed him to teach it.
Steve Guy’s own provenance is interesting, incidentally. Twenty years ago he was a history PhD student at Queen Mary, University of London, making ends meet by working part-time in Covent Garden at, you guessed, CMT. Almost needless to say the history was forgotten and mechanical theatre took over.
He joined the Rose in Sidcup in 2006 and the first major project was to create a mechanical version of Aristophanes’ classical classic The Birds. The students had to find out how to make machines that mimicked the actions of birds. They learned about the usually non-theatrical pursuits of drilling, grinding, welding and riveting, used plumbers, pipes and scooter parts, scrounged cooking oil from a local Chinese restaurant, and in short showed a deal of ingenuity. They had a parade of their creations through Sidcup, when several of their creations had to be carried back to the drawing board in dismembered parts. But they persevered under Dr G’s genial guidance, and got it so right that they were able to take their birds and created a performance for the international showcase the Prague Quadrennial, and were a hit. ‘Wonderful set of students, wonderful;’ says Steve.
It was a new set of students, just as wonderful it turned out, that put together the London Jungle Book – to the delight of Bhajju Shyam to whose home village in Uttar Pradesh Dr G introduced the mechanical theatre of the book, and did workshops with kids there as well as performances.
“The point is that ‘mechanical theatre’ is being recognised as a legitimate part of puppet theatre, (that was the section of the Prague Quadrennial that we were part of), and there’s enormous enthusiasm for it among the students and audiences’ he says.
Term has started again, and a new project is under way. Next June the Horniman Museum has an exhibition called Myths and Monsters. I think we can safely leave the rest to their imagination.
Look out for Paul O’Grady on his TV show at 5pm on October 19. He will have taken on a rather alarming aspect until you realise that it’s not actually him chairing the frolics, nor even his alter ego Lily Savage. The show will open with RoboThespian in his place – created by Will Jackson’s Engineered Arts which I told you about back in June. Mechanical theatre is to be he theme of the programme.
And keep a watchful eye on this website from November 12. Each evening for 40 nights something will be happening. Precisely what is a closely guarded secret, which means I’ve no idea, but each night there will be some new manifestation of the Magic of Cabaret, the series title. The spell lasts until Winter Solstice, December 21; don’t miss it.