What’s big or small? Solid or a shadow? Held up by string, a stick or even a crane?
Every two years (uneven numbers) – the lovely town of Charleville-Mezieres in Champagne-Ardenne hosts the world’s largest gathering of puppeteers and if you think that means a whole load of Punch and Judy type shows – you couldn’t be more wrong.
For ten days each September, the world’s best puppeteers from countries around the world put on 600 shows.
I went to the 2013 Festival Mondial des Theatres de Marionettes (The World Puppet Festival) and was amazed by this surprising cultural event. The town itself is absolutely gorgeous, ancient buildings of mellow, yellow stone, cobble stone streets and little town squares, and in the centre a grand square where the inauguration of the show took place.
Puppet shows date back to around 1000 BC in India, but Charleville-Meziere’s history as the Puppet capital of the world dates back to 1961 when young Frenchman Jacques Félix, a keen amateur puppeteer founded the festival. This is also the home of a puppet museum and a puppet school and I spoke to a local resident who told me that every child in the town has at least one puppet at home!
Arriving on the day of the inauguration which was to take place at 22.00 in the Place Ducal, the whole town was flushed with a festive atmosphere and puppets were hung in shop windows, from roof tops, trees and just about anywhere you could think to hang one!
I wandered the lovely streets and squares admiring the architecture, boulangeries and little shops, the puppet museum, the old London double decker bus that serves as a restaurant, the statue of famous French poet Arthur Rimbaud who hails from this historic town. I even came across a puppet clock tower where from 10.00 – 21.00 the doors open and a puppet show takes place presenting scenes from the town’s medieval history.
Then at 22.00 it seemed like the whole place started to converge on the grand Place Ducale where a giant wicker puppet had been sat all day contemplating his fate. Rock music sounded the start, lights flashed and suddenly the giant puppet stood up, operated by a remote control crane. The crowd went wild, the puppet strutted his stuff round the square seemingly independently as the crane couldn’t be seen in the light and then he wandered off down a side street and there was a feeling of “let the show begin”…
This is NOT an ordinary puppet show event – this is the best and the biggest in the whole world and in fact more than 350 puppeteers from all five continents of the world were in town to give it their all. The shows are not just for kids though there are some that children will love, but they are also aimed at adults, some are very artistic, sophisticated and all are performed with style.
Streets are filled with puppet shows from huge giant Pierrot style puppets to tiny little shadow puppets, 40 venues host major puppet shows and something is going on all through the day and much of the night. I went to the Slovenian Ljubljana Puppet Theatre show of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”. I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything quite like it – it was brilliant. The narration was in Slovenian but the words were flashed in English and French on a screen under the stage. The puppets were incredibly detailed, there were more than 200 people held completely spellbound by the witty, clever and compelling story of the corruption of power – I think we all found it relevant wherever we came from.
Back out into the streets and a theatrical performance as three giant puppets saved a damsel in distress from being carried away by a giant balloon. A silver mime artist in the grandest French tradition held a red rose to his lips and used his eyes to communicate, props were everywhere from little caravans to circus tents, posters everywhere advised what shows were on and where and I can truly say I was sorry to leave this fantastic event as two days just wasn’t enough…
You can catch the puppet shows until 29 September, details of shows (some paid), how to get to Charleville-Mezieres (I took the train from Paris which took about 2 hours), accommodation etc from the website: Festival Mondial des theatres de marionettes (English and French)