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A Puppet Tale marks the inaugural instalment of our new fortnightly feature, The Wednesday Play, in which we publish short plays from some of the most exciting emerging theatre practitioners. Our first contributor, Emma Whipday, is the author of the play Shakespeare’s Sister, which is published by Samuel French and recently received its international premiere at the American Shakespeare Center, Staunton, VA, in February 2017.
ANNA: experienced puppeteer, late 20s.
JOHN: experienced puppeteer, late 20s.
BELLA: new puppeteer, early 20s.
THE LOVER: Anna’s puppet.
THE COQUETTE: John’s puppet.
THE REVENGER: Bella’s puppet.
Enter ANNA, BELLA and JOHN, each half-carrying, half-dragging their life-size puppets onto the stage. In John’s arms lies THE COQUETTE; ANNA supports THE LOVER; BELLA pulls ineffectually at THE REVENGER.
Observing BELLA’s difficulties, JOHN, after arranging COQUETTE in a neat heap, rushes to her aid. ANNA remains still, cradling THE LOVER in her arms, before letting him drop. Between them, JOHN and BELLA place THE REVENGER in his spot.
The three puppets lie upon the stage, inert, waiting. The puppeteers retreat to the back, out of sight.
Slowly, with laboured movements, the COQUETTE, LOVER and REVENGER rise to their feet. It is clear that their limbs are not under their own control; their movements are clumsy and unreal. With fixed expressions, they each take their place in a mime they have performed countless times before.
COQUETTE stands centre-stage, as LOVER and REVENGER strike an attitude on either side, proffering their love. COQUETTE moves towards first one and then the other, uncertain. LOVER is hopeful yet humble; REVENGER, arrogant and assured. She flirts ambiguously with both and seems on the point of throwing herself at REVENGER when she abruptly turns and sinks into LOVER’s arms.
They cling together, locked in a wooden, strangely passionless passion, as REVENGER looks on, spurned.
During the action that follows, it becomes clear that the puppets are not alone on stage. The puppeteers gradually make their presence felt. They appear crouched behind the puppets, their hands, arms, and sometimes entire bodies moving in quick and complex movements, mirroring those of their puppets, as their control their creations with invisible strings.
REVENGER begins to make bids for COQUETTE’s attention. At first she brushes him off, but soon, growing bored by her faithful LOVER, she secretly returns his signals, until REVENGER is able to entice COQUETTE away. LOVER, distraught, watches as REVENGER teases her, kisses her, and then finally, as she sinks into his embrace, plucks out her “heart”: a bundle of red cloth.
As she collapses upon the ground, REVENGER holds her heart aloft. LOVER falls upon her body, before leaping up to attack REVENGER, who throws him down, pulling from him a stream of “blood” (a long red scarf).
LOVER falls prone across the body of COQUETTE. REVENGER stands above, holding the heart high.
They remain in a frozen tableau for a moment, and then REVENGER also drops onto the pile. ANNA, BELLA and JOHN move forward to take their bows, before raising COQUETTE, LOVER and REVENGER again, so they also may bow to the audience.
BELLA, JOHN and ANNA each hold a collapsed puppet upon their lap. ANNA busily stuffs the spilt “blood” back into LOVER’s chest. BELLA, wanting to look industrious too, is vaguely dusting her own immaculate puppet.
JOHN sits forlorn, COQUETTE’s heart in his hand. He makes no movement to replace it.
JOHN: I could count them.
BELLA: (soothing) It’s a matinee. The house is always smaller.
JOHN: No, not the audience. The claps. Every single one. Applause isn’t supposed to come in single figures.
ANNA: We had an audience of seven. What did you expect?
JOHN: I expected more than one clap per audience member.
He absent-mindedly stuffs the heart into COQUETTE’s chest, but it falls apart in his hands.
BELLA: Here, let me.
Letting her own puppet drop, she springs up to help John.
ANNA: He made that puppet. I think he can manage it.
BELLA: (climbing onto John’s lap) But I like to help, don’t I, darling?
Her movements almost dislodge COQUETTE, and JOHN, kissing her neck, carefully shifts her so that both are comfortably settled. She starts attempting to pack the heart into COQUETTE’s chest. Almost imperceptibly, COQUETTE shudders.
ANNA: You let Bella touch her?
JOHN: With me.
ANNA packs the remaining “blood” violently into LOVER’s chest. He twitches sharply in response, and she soothes him with her hands.
ANNA: This isn’t working, John.
JOHN: I don’t understand you, Anna.
ANNA: Are you deliberately being obtuse?
JOHN: Are you deliberately being incomprehensible?
BELLA ceases in her efforts to replace the heart. It is unravelling in her hands.
BELLA: Look – it’s almost falling apart.
The other two fail to notice her.
ANNA: (backing down) The show. The show isn’t working.
JOHN: The show is just fine. It’s the audience that are the problem.
BELLA: Perhaps I should stitch it up.
ANNA: But it has no point. So a cloth puppet loses its cloth heart. Nobody cares.
BELLA: (in a bid for attention) I know what the show needs.
ANNA: (finally acknowledging BELLA) Oh, do you.
JOHN: Tell us, darling.
BELLA: It just needs spicing up a little. Something new. Like a dance.
ANNA: A dance. That’s all we need.
JOHN: Let’s just stick with things as they are, shall we?
BELLA: Why won’t you take me seriously?
JOHN: I do, I do – it’s just – I’ve been doing this a little longer than you. Dancing can be tricky.
BELLA: If you’d just let me show you –
ANNA sighs ostentatiously, and returns her attention to LOVER.
JOHN: All right, Bella. Show us.
BELLA leaps over to REVENGER.
BELLA: Well, it’s the moment where Anna’s puppet’s being all love-struck, and mine is just standing to the side, being jealous. It’s so dull. And I thought if mine danced his pain – like this –
BELLA, with a struggle, raises the REVENGER to his feet, and begins to guide him in a clumsy dance. But REVENGER seems unwilling to follow the movements, almost resisting her control, and BELLA becomes less and less able to move him as she wishes, tripping over his feet and entangling her invisible strings.
As BELLA is preoccupied by her disobedient puppet, ANNA and JOHN converse in low voices.
ANNA: Perhaps if our villain wasn’t played by a novice…
JOHN: So that’s what this is about.
ANNA: Oh, of course. Because Anna couldn’t possibly have anything useful to say. If she’s complaining, it must be because she’s jealous.
JOHN: I never said that.
ANNA: I’m glad we’ve got another puppeteer on board. No, really, I’m delighted. It makes the show so much better. With a third puppeteer, we can do something interesting. It’s just rather a shame that our third puppeteer has no talent.
BELLA gives up all pretence at making her puppet dance, and lets REVENGER drop.
BELLA: You weren’t even watching.
JOHN: We were, sweetie, we were.
BELLA: You were not. I saw you.
JOHN: Anna just wanted to discuss something –
BELLA: (to ANNA) You’re just jealous, aren’t you? You’re jealous of my dance.
ANNA: (with heavy sarcasm) Yes, Bella. I’m jealous of your dance.
JOHN: Bella love, why don’t you go and get that heart sewn up. We don’t have long, and you’re the fastest with the needle –
BELLA: Why should I go when she’s the one being insulting?
JOHN: (in a low voice) Because Anna is a little upset.
BELLA: Poor Anna. Always so hard done by. (with effort) I suppose she could have a dance a bit later. Sort of an echo.
ANNA: An echo. Wonderful.
JOHN: (Holding out the heart) Will you?
BELLA: All right, I’ll sew it. But I wouldn’t do it for anyone else.
JOHN: That’s my lovely girl.
He kisses her. Exit BELLA, heart in hand.
JOHN: Look, Anna, I know this is hard for you. I know it is. But I thought we were going to be sensible about this. We both agreed that the show was going to come first.
ANNA: Oh, we did, we did, didn’t we. Like the grown-ups we are.
JOHN: Bella’s full of potential. She’s still very young –
ANNA: Yes, that seems to be what you like.
JOHN: That is not what we are discussing.
ANNA: Isn’t it?
JOHN: The curtain’s up in five minutes, Anna. There’s no point getting into this now.
ANNA: Oh, it’s because of the timing, is it? I rather thought your view was that there’s no point getting into this ever.
JOHN: We’ve put our hearts and souls into these puppets, Anna. They mean everything to us. We’ve worked on them, spent our time on them, given them our all. They have to come first. We’ve always known that. The puppets are what matter.
ANNA: (thoughtfully) Yes, I suppose that makes sense.
JOHN: (relieved) Of course it does.
ANNA: That explains everything really. If you put everything into these puppets, maybe that’s why you’ve got nothing left.
JOHN: I don’t know what you are talking about. I really don’t.
ANNA: You gave away your real heart to a painted doll –
Unnoticed by the puppeteers, COQUETTE lets out a whispered echo –
ANNA: – and you gave yourself a cloth heart instead.
During the following exchange, the puppets begin to echo JOHN and ANNA’s words. They do so indistinctly but still noticeably; yet neither JOHN nor ANNA appear aware of it. It’s as if the puppets have become so much part of themselves that they almost expect the puppets to speak as they do; they have forgotten that puppets don’t talk.
JOHN: Please don’t be melodramatic, Anna.
COQUETTE: (whispered sharply, catching John’s tone) Anna.
LOVER: (whispered softly, gently) Anna.
Enter BELLA, unnoticed. She stands at the back, watching for a moment.
ANNA: But even if you’re nothing but a cloth man, I’m made of flesh and blood, and when you tear my heart out, it bleeds.
LOVER (whispered plaintively): Bleeds.
COQUETTE (whispered simultaneously): Bleeds.
REVENGER: (whispered simultaneously) Bleeds.
ANNA: Try to remember that.
BELLA: (Handing John the heart) If you’re suggesting your puppet gets its heart ripped out, I think it’s a terrible idea.
ANNA turns her head sharply to look at BELLA. LOVER does the same.
JOHN: (wearily) No, Bella. Anna wasn’t suggesting that.
ANNA: You just don’t get it, do you? You don’t understand a thing.
BELLA: (to JOHN) If she’s being horrid again –
ANNA: How can anyone be so obtuse? I can’t just decide to rip my puppet’s heart out. You can’t just decide your puppet should dance. They aren’t toys, we can’t make them dance or die on a whim. You have to believe in them. You have to make them part of yourself, and then you know, you know what it’s right that they should do –
JOHN: That’s enough, Anna. This isn’t the time for a lecture.
ANNA: How am I supposed to create a worthwhile show with this idiot, who knows nothing?
BELLA: I won’t listen to another word.
JOHN: Bella –
BELLA: No! I won’t stay to be insulted. You can laugh at me, Anna, and call me an idiot, but when you needed help and there was no-one else, you were happy enough to take me on. You need me, and don’t you forget it. You both treat me like I’m some kind of child, but I’m old enough when I’m needed on stage, I’m old enough when you decide to love me or hate me, and I’m old enough to walk out of here.
JOHN: Well, I hope you’re going to apologize.
ANNA: (half to herself, half to LOVER) The sad thing is, I imagine I am. Just to bring her back. Just so the curtain still goes up, so we still have a show. The show must… (sighing) The things I do for you.
She holds LOVER close for a moment, before leaping up.
JOHN: (off stage) Anna!
LOVER: (aloud) Anna.
ANNA turns back in shock. LOVER lies there, immobile. She shakes her head and exits.
LOVER, COQUETTE and REVENGER each shift slightly, rolling their heads, though not yet moving.
Even as they speak, their bodies remain immobile.
REVENGER: She won’t hear you.
COQUETTE: She doesn’t listen.
LOVER: She does. She hears.
Slowly, slowly, they shift into sitting positions, rubbing their faces, manoeuvring their stiff limbs.
LOVER: Five minutes only. Then we’re on again.
COQUETTE: (wistful) Again.
REVENGER: Again. And this time, it seems, I dance.
COQUETTE: He won’t let her.
LOVER: He let her touch you.
COQUETTE: He won’t again.
REVENGER: This will be the last. Don’t you feel it? They’re falling apart. They’re unravelling.
COQUETTE: We’re losing them. Sometimes he looks at her and not at me. Anna understood, but that girl– she think I am a toy, a plaything. He made me.
REVENGER: She thinks I am dancing doll. I’d like to see her dance.
COQUETTE: And yet you like her best. You like her because she’s sweet and weak, and because she really loves him.
LOVER: And he doesn’t her. Never either of them. Only you. Poor Anna.
COQUETTE: (mocking) Poor Anna.
REVENGER: Why poor Anna? Her time is coming. Tick tock. Tick tock.
He rises stiffly to his feet.
REVENGER: And we shall all dance.
LOVER and COQUETTE, following his lead, both rise. REVENGER pulls at their strings simultaneously, moving their legs in a clumsy “dance”, before collapsing them onto the floor.
Pulling themselves back into sitting positions, they turn to glare at him.
COQUETTE: Do you want to break us?
LOVER: What are you trying to prove?
REVENGER: What? You’re puppets, aren’t you? Isn’t this what you’re for?
COQUETTE: But you are not my master.
LOVER: You are not our puppeteer.
REVENGER: Oh, master, master. You both love your masters so.
He bends down to speak to them.
REVENGER: You are puppets. Moving toys. So they made you. So what? A tug on your strings, and you’re anybody’s. That’s what puppets are.
COQUETTE: (provoking) Just because he didn’t chose you. Just because he gave you away.
REVENGER: And I smile in every stitch that he did. Because I know what I am. What we all are. Puppets, nothing more.
COQUETTE: You know that isn’t so. We are different. They made us different. Special.
LOVER: They made us and they love us.
REVENGER: You’re so obedient. Servants. Slaves. How you worship them.
COQUETTE: Worship? (She gives a cold, tinkling laugh) Worship my John? My pretty one? He’s mine. My plaything. My little man-toy. (Growing more savage) He’s so alive. My body, my piece of flesh.
REVENGER: (to LOVER) And you?
LOVER: I only want what she wants.
REVENGER: Just as long as she wants what you want.
LOVER: We’ve always wanted the same.
REVENGER: Then I think we might be ready.
LOVER: The minutes are ticking by. Soon the curtain rises.
COQUETTE: And we must have a show.
REVENGER: Then rise up.
COQUETTE: (rising) Up.
LOVER: (rising) Up.
BELLA: (off stage) I’ll try the dance tonight, I will!
REVENGER: (simultaneous) It is time.
COQUETTE: (simultaneous) It is time.
LOVER: (simultaneous) It is time.
They freeze in their upright positions.
Enter ANNA, BELLA and JOHN, seemingly reconciled. They see their puppets standing, like statues.
JOHN: What the –
ANNA: This is impossible.
Warily, they approach their creations from behind. The puppets remain still. One by one, the puppeteers raise their arms to take up the invisible strings.
In unison, the puppets turn to face them. BELLA freezes in terror; held by REVENGER’s gaze, she is unable to back away. JOHN is drawn to COQUETTE, fascinated; he strokes her face. ANNA and LOVER look into each other’s eyes.
BELLA: I don’t like this. I want to wake up. I want to wake up!
The other two ignore her, oblivious.
REVENGER: (amused) Bella…
REVENGER moves to her.
ANNA: It’s strange to suddenly know what you’ve always wanted. To recognize the thing you dreamed of, and find that it’s real.
LOVER: (adoring) Anna…
LOVER moves to her.
JOHN: This is all I ever hoped for.
COQUETTE: (caressing) John…
COQUETTE moves to him.
The puppets turn on their masters and subdue them, reversing the invisible strings.
The puppeteers fall to the ground. And then COQUETTE, LOVER and REVENGER raise ANNA, BELLA and JOHN: now their puppets, and under their control.
The former puppeteers can still control their faces, but their bodies, except for brief moments when they struggle against the strings, are no longer theirs. Their lips are closed and silent.
JOHN stands between the two women as they both reach out towards him. Though trying to move towards BELLA, he is drawn, against his will, to ANNA. Her hands are almost grasping him when he abruptly turns and embraces BELLA. Yet this embrace is utterly unlike those earlier; it is clumsy and unreal. ANNA again reaches for JOHN, as JOHN slowly but irrevocably begins to move away from BELLA. Fighting the pull of the strings, they cling to one another, but JOHN cannot resist, and moves again towards ANNA.
BELLA watches in horror as ANNA pulls JOHN into a close embrace, before pushing him to the ground and kissing him, with her hands placed upon his chest – above his heart.
They are frozen, in a tableau, for a moment, and then her hands move to his mouth, and cover it. For a long, drawn-out moment, he struggles and his limbs twitch, then, finally, he goes limp. BELLA begins to weep, quietly. ANNA stays frozen, breathing hard.
Ignoring them, COQUETTE moves centre stage, and strikes an attitude. LOVER and REVENGER take up their positions either side.
A Puppet Tale is a revised version of a short play first performed at the Old Vic New Voices ‘Under Pressure’ New Writing Showcase in May 2010, directed by Asia Osborne.