ulisseThe return of the king

Updating the story of Ulysses to a South African hospital ward populated by puppets has been a real labour of love.


If you thought the average opera clocked up a large number of performers, spare a thought for the people who have to stage Il Ritorno d’Ulisse. It may be a chamber production, but for every singer there is a puppet and for every puppet a puppeteer. Yet far from cluttering up the stage, this collaboration between Belgium’s Ricercar Consort and South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company reveals the Monteverdi opera in a whole new light.

“Each character is represented by three heads,” says musical director Philippe Pierlot. “There is the head of the puppet, the head of the puppeteer and the head of the singer. So you have a triangle. Both the singer and the puppeteer look permanently at the puppet to give it life.”

In a conventional opera performance, the singer belts everything out to the back of the stalls, but here, in a classical Greek story relocated to a modern-day South African hospital bed, the focus switches to the two-thirds life-size puppet figures.

“It affects the way of singing,” says Pierlot. “Instead of giving your singing directly to the audience, you focus your emotions into the puppet. It means you focus on detail and on the inside more than the outside. For the singers it’s a bit strange, because they are taught to do the contrary, which is to communicate directly to the audience. So it is a very different process, but it gives birth to new emotions. The power of expression is more concentrated.”

Created by the company behind the Olivier Award-winning Warhorse – which is still running in London after its acclaimed debut at the National Theatre – the opera has been edited down to a compact 90 minutes. This, and its built-in theatricality, makes it accessible to a broad audience.

“The story-telling quality of the music is wondrous,” says puppeteer and set designer Adrian Kohler. “Ulysses and Penelope are ancient, mythical people and to represent them in a sculptural way with puppets, rather than a flesh-and-blood way, enables you to see them as mythical and living.”

The heady mix does not stop there, however. In addition to singers and puppets, the musicians are in full view. Not only that, but there is also the contribution of William Kentridge, the internationally celebrated South African artist, who is here credited as director, animator and set designer. He completes the vision of the wandering Ulysses and his romantic return to Penelope with a film made up of animated black-and-white charcoal drawings, illustrating the hero’s fading impressions of his faraway homeland.

Out of what the New York Times called a “sensory overload” emerges a poignant reflection on life and death. “There are a lot of medical references in the film,” says Kohler. “It’s about the workings of the body and the frailty of the body and the forces that keep you alive. Those are also the themes of Monteverdi where the gods are helping or hindering the progress of Ulysses back to his wife.”

IL RITORNO D’ULISSE IN PATRIA, King’s Theatre, 23, 25, 26 Aug, 8pm
From £10, 0131 473 2000

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