In their fifth production at the London International Mime Festival, French puppet theatre company Les Antiaclastes introduce us to a world populated by mischievous elves and egg-loving Jackalopes. Waltz of the Hommelettes brings the sinister nature of folklore to life at the Barbican in a series of vignettes inspired by the fairy tale worlds made popular by the Brothers Grimm.
First intrigued by the mother bird spinning thread onstage – the wheel’s turns accented by the rhythm of the squeaking pedal below – you are then entranced by the woman as she (literally) spins herself a nest for her eggs. From that point on, you become engrossed by every movement onstage, anticipating what is to come next. Whether everyone is satisfied by the play’s end, however, is less certain.
Moments of visual wonder and delight are in abundance, as Waltz of the Hommelettes exhibits an array of different visual art forms – including mask, puppetry and shadow work. The cuckoo-clock set is intricately designed, with surprises hidden behind various doors. One surprise (or three, rather) are the sinister sprites who frequently appear, up to no good. Despite their small, bony exteriors, they fill the room with shrieking laughter as they intervene with the natural world. They are just some of the fantastic puppets on display throughout the performance.
As wildly entertaining as the e;ves and their fellow troublemakers are, there isn’t much else to be said. In an interview with Claudine Bocher, director Patrick Sims talks about the symbolism, religious themes and moral codes that characterised the Grimms’ tales he grew up with. Such complexity is absent from Waltz of the Hommelettes; in fact, much of the humour is rather tongue-in-cheek, as the title would suggest. What is more, Sims goes on to say that “mankind and nature are treated here as opposite forces”, which is contradicted by what is portrayed onstage. The blend of human mannerisms and animal guises blurs the two worlds together, despite the distinction that is said to exist. There are indeed reminders of man’s cruel nature – highlighted in one scene with a beautifully crafted and emotive deer puppet – but then there are also reminders that nature can be equally ruthless. If Sims intended for his play to have some greater meaning, then it has been lost on the way.
Being part of a festival that celebrates visual storytelling and a medium that removes the need for language entirely, it is unusual that Waltz of the Hommelettes possesses scenes that are narrated. Stranger still is the fact that the scenes described to us are the ones directly inspired by The Elves, the Grimm’s tales on which the play is said to be loosely based. It seems a shame that Sims does not give the audience credit in believing that they will understand what is being depicted visually on stage, especially when the story narrated – the tale of the Elves and the Shoemaker – is one many people will recognise. It also feels rather twee when compared to the bizarre conclusion that follows.
Still, Waltz of the Hommelettes is a show that proves that puppetry can still enrapture people of all ages, especially when it’s as wonderfully weird as the show’s end. Just don’t be too disappointed by the lack of any other revelations.