I wandered up to London last night with Ellen to see War Horse, a rather interesting show based on a World War 1 story, using a variety of life-size puppets. Puppets are Ellen's thing at the moment (she did a couple of shows during Brighton Festival), and I rather enjoyed Flogging a Dead Horse when we caught it last year.
I found the script of War Horse slightly on the mawkish side, and long after having shared a house with an academic who specialised in the subject, I still find World War 1 material challenging in general. But that didn't matter one jot - I was absolutely blown away by the technical mastery of the puppets, the unnervingly lifelike movement ascribed to them, and the playfulness with which they were employed. You haven't lived until you've seen a wheeled mechanical duck get pushed around the stage in a waddling motion, it's eerily articulated neck pecking at the floor.
Over and above the relentless detail of the animal movements, a few moments really hit home: watching a trio of puppeteers slowly withdraw from the corpse of a fallen horse, driving home the finality of its death; one of the cast casually slapping one of the "horses" on the rump during the final applause, to persuade the artificial beast to leave the stage; and the insistent pestering of a young French girl for chocolate. By the end, the animals may as well have been real; their suffering certainly was. And yet they're strange things constructed from wood, wire and leather - not by any means real, they ought to sit snugly in the uncanny valley.
I couldn't help but relate my own empathy with War Horse to some of what I saw Sherry Turkle talk about last week: I *must* hurry up and read the first half of Alone Together, which deals with social robotics.
And Ellen talked about a modern renaissance in puppetry. I idly wondered if something about our relations with software and machines might have trained us, or at least acclimatised us, towards relating better with this particular art form...