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Wunderkammer review at the Pit, Barbican Centre, London – ‘technically stunning’

Figurentheater Tubingen's Wunderkammer-Photo: Winfried Reinhardt Figurentheater Tubingen's Wunderkammer-Photo: Winfried Reinhardt

Named for the movement that sought to elevate the marionette theatre to a true and canonically accepted art-form, Figurentheater Tubingen trace their inspiration back to the delicate performances of Albrecht Roser, and his famous clown-puppet Gustaf. Their Wunderkammer, or Cabinet of Curiosities – part of London’s International Mime Festival – has plenty of wonders on display, but in its sketch-like form and limited emotional range, displays as many of the medium’s limits as its strengths.

The best moments emerge in simple, wonder-filled actions: a figure, entranced by a kite, finds his own and flies it across the theatre; an ant-like creature tests its weight and rises to its feet; a translucent dragon rises from a watery tank. They are poetic and evocative, they make a witty gymnastics of objects. Above all, they make the most of that delicious game the best marionette work plays  between weight and weightlessness – where gravity is crudely defied and then delicately re-created.

Recurring motifs, including a pair of golden hands, a dour and lonely caterpillar and two bright, Matisse-like figures quickly feel repetitious and lose their appeal, and the lack of narrative or any defining aesthetic principle leaves the whole dangling even while the parts are tautly performed. What’s badly needed is some broader comedy, deeper pathos or more stimulating content to elevate the skits from technical to theatrical brilliance. It’s something that Roser understood instinctively, and Figurentheater Tubingen only discover in fits and starts.

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Technically stunning but only fitfully entrancing marionette cabinet of curiosities