Lex Paleaux’s WINTER WATER at Korzo in The Hague

I’m old enough to remember when puppets were considered only children’s entertainment whether it was on the beach as Punch and Judy or on television with Sooty and Sweep or the slightly more sophisticated Thunderbirds. However, there were places where puppets were taken seriously and treated as an art form. Prague always had, and still has puppet theatres, shops and museums and in Bali there is an equally long tradition of shadow puppets. But here puppets were kids’ stuff.

I think that all changed with the National Theatre’s 2007 stage version of Michael Morpurgo’s Warhorse in London. Gone were the strings and the hands shoved inside. These horse puppets were actual size and operated by three guys, fully visible to the audience. That production created, or at least brought to the wider public a style and technique that is now widely used. Puppets are now taken seriously and are considered a legitimate element of adult theatre.

Studio Figur, Rieks Swarte and Feikes Huis’s production of Winterwater, adapted from the debut auto-biographical novel by Lex Paleaux, is the coming-of-age story of Lex, a young lad from rural Fresia, the nether part of The Netherlands. Brilliantly portrayed in three stages of his formative years by life-size puppets, we learn about the boy’s lonely life, abused by his strictly religious mother and victimized for his inquisitive mind. As the story unfolds we discover the traumatic events that plunge him deeper into himself. His only solace is his imagination, his worship of Freddy Mercury and his neighbour’s dog, also played by a shaggy puppet.

Although performed in Dutch it is not difficult to follow, even if you are not proficient in the language – it is the visual presentation which dominates. The four actors take on all the roles – manipulating the puppets, delivering the text, operating the effects and providing the music. And this is quite an impressive production with a very large set consisting of the playing area and a huge, solid back wall. It is onto this wall, in which there was a door, that live images are projected.

At the side of the stage was a desk with lights and a small overhead camera. On the desk were crude chalk drawings on black paper which acted as scenery when they beamed onto the wall. Some of the drawings were animated as the actors moved different elements on sticks within the frame. This worked brilliantly and their charming, childlike qualities being at odds the sad and tragic tale as it unfolded. Many of the other props and bits of scenery had the same naive quality. Particularly effective was the chalk drawing on a cardboard cut-out of a bike. The exception was a bright and shiny white enamel bath, the scene of the play’s tragic dénouement.

Brilliant and totally effective though the scenery and projections were, it was of course the puppets that stole the show. Representing three stages in the boy’s life, each one was all in white with a shiny translucent head and face, giving them an ethereal, almost ghost-like quality. The dog was slightly more realistic and rather naughty, at one point peeing on the keyboard player’s leg. It’s amazing that these puppets are so believable considering that the actors manipulating them are in full view, crawling behind their charges, often having to assume awkward positions.

Winterwater is a brilliant piece of imaginative, original and serious theatre which I thoroughly enjoyed and which I would unhesitatingly recommend. Wonderful.  Michael Hasted   19th February 2024