mari lwyd puppet mark II

Since the tests run with the table-top puppet ten days ago, and after consulting with the-lead puppeteer on the project, Ann Prior, I’ve extensively reworked the first Mari Lwyd. The original shroud was quite flimsy and limp and difficult to control. While struggling to use it expressively, I recalled the way in which the kimonos of Bunraku puppets are so extensively padded that when skilfully and boldly manipulated, audiences get a strong impression of dynamic movement beneath them. The sleeves particularly are most expressive, and with female Bunraku  puppets, which have no legs, a sense of motion is conjured by operating the garments to suggest the kick of walking feet against their hems. In Bunraku, the costumes act as much as the puppets!

With those ideas in mind, I started by removing the puppet’s pelvis and legs, leaving only the ribcage to centre the figure and to make a tension between it and the head when both are controlled by the puppeteer. A new shroud, much bulkier and padded, creates the height of the figure, and  a second puppeteer simply operates the lower part of it to suggest legs and feet. In this way the Mari convincingly walks, lunges, kneels and crouches with legs akimbo. An observer would never know that the effect is created by a puppeteer’s hands alone.

The Mari puppet was built with no arms because basically a Mari Lwyd is a skull on a stick carried by a man hidden by a sheet. (Not that I want to reproduce the historic appearance, but rather create a dramatic reinterpretation of it.) However on a visual level, the puppet’s lack of arms hindered what we were able to achieve with its performance, and so the shroud has been remade to suggest arms beneath it, hands folded together under the layers of obscuring gauze. The puppeteer will be able to manipulate the costume, suggesting arms, and in this way introduce more potential for expression into the performance.

With the large, heavy Bunraku puppets, one puppeteer operates the head and right hand, a second operates the left hand, and a third works the legs. (Or in the case of legless female characters, the kimono.) With our small and lightweight puppet, the lead-puppeteer operates the head with one hand, and with the remaining one grasps under the ribcage to angle the spine and create the diagonals of dynamic upper-body movement. By releasing the second hand from the ribcage and repositioning it to suggest the folded hands under the shroud, with a little juggling a single puppeteer can operate the functions of two Bunraku operators. With careful choreography the puppeteer can even use that same second hand to suggest the motion of the puppet’s non-existent feet, though we’re going to have a second puppeteer dedicated to that function.

I’ve added strands of hemp string knotted into the shroud. It has a life of its own, springing and coiling and creating a sense of the ribbon decorations of the traditional Mari, without representing them literally. They look really interesting and catch the light like a horse’s whiskers.

The following photographs were all taken this evening, by me, one-handed as I played with the puppet in the dining-room mirror. They’re all out of focus, but they’re certainly atmospheric. The camera seems to love this Mari, shambling along in its new shroud.

Like something out of an M R James ghost story.

Now we need to film a second test.

You can see an explanation of how Bunraku puppets work in THIS short film (there’s a demonstration of a puppet being operated minus the costuming) and experience a masterclass in puppetry HERE, where the portrayal of almost unhinged grief is staggering. Performance art of the highest order.

5 responses to “mari lwyd puppet mark II

    • In performance I hope that’s the way things will look, with the Mari looming large on the projection screen.

    • Thanks Phil. But even better, the puppet is now working really beautifully. Can’t wait to see Ann again to put it properly through its paces.

      I’d like to see that great Berlin art shop you wrote about in your message to me at your blog. It sounds as though you’ve got your Ibiza ‘art-kit’ all ready!

      • Hehe, you’re right, I don’t miss an opportunity to buy another sketchbook and I’m all ready with my travelling art kit.
        Good to hear how well the puppet is working, it’s going to make a heck of an impact with the music!

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