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Still from 3 Stages of Lazarus Photo Manuel Vasquez

Still from 3 Stages of Lazarus (photo: Manuel Vasquez)

The multiple talents of Christopher Leith

Local writer and artist Chandra Masoliver is fascinated by the incredibly wide-ranging career of master puppeteer and writer Christopher Leith, whose work-in-progress 3 Stages for Lazarus was recently performed at the White Rock Theatre. In the first of two articles, she explores Leith’s career and her experience of the 3 Stages. Next week, we’ll publish her interview with the man himself. 

Who is Christopher Leith? Master puppeteer, maker of wooden puppets and musical instruments, writer of plays, consummate actor, singer, magical storyteller, showman and director at The Little Angel Theatre in Islington from 1993 – 2000.

Over the years I’ve taken my children, my grandchildren and friends-who-are-tall- children to see the puppet shows at the Little Angel Theatre, not knowing that one day I would meet Christopher face to face. In 2001 he moved to Hastings – and later he just happened to live in the same house as a friend of mine in St Leonards-on-Sea.

Comprehensive career

After studying theatre design at Wimbledon School of Art and acting at Dartington College of Arts, Christopher Leith trained at the Little Angel Theatre under its founder, John Wright MBE, learning about puppet design, wood carving and marionette manipulation. Many years later, after John Wright’s death, he became the theatre’s director and, in 1993, took over full responsibility for artistic policy, audience development and community outreach. He was able to employ and teach many people, tour in Britain and abroad – and even raise enough money to redevelop the theatre so as to present the widest possible range of puppet performance.

At The Little Angel, Leith produced twenty new plays and directed fourteen of them, including The Ugly Duckling, Odessa and the Magic Goat, The Sleeping Beauty, The Elves and the Shoemaker, Webs, Witches and the Spider Queen, Joey Grimaldi King of Clowns, The Talkative Tortoise and Other Tall Tales, Stories from India, Go Noah Go from Agard’s Flood story set in the Carribean, The Many-Legged Musicians of Bremley Town, Bluebeard, The Secret Garden and The Tale of the Tsar Sultan from the story by Pushkin.

After Christopher left the Little Angel Theatre, Sir Peter Hall saw his adaptation of the early English poem Beowulf and it was put on by the National Theatre, where he became the first resident puppeteer. He also ventured into two puppet operas: Judith and Holofernes and Haydn’s puppet opera, Philemon and Baucis. In fact, he has been involved in so many productions that I’d need pages to list them all for you.

Leith has worked for the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Opera House, English National Opera, the ICA, the Almeida Theatre and the London Palladium – and although he stresses that his first love is the theatre, he’s also performed as a puppeteer in countless films and television shows, using the money he earned to carve more puppets.

Christopher has written that music and singing have always been a vital part of his work. After training at Morley College, London, he later studied Gregorian chant with Dr Mary Berry. He sang the role of Macheath in Gay’s Beggar’s Opera and that of Apollo in Monteverdi’s Orfeo, as well as singing in many choirs in England and France.

Being wheelchair bound due to the effects of motor neurone disease, which he developed in 2013, has not deterred him nor impeded his creative urges. With the help of his team, he has almost finished documenting and archiving his work, finding homes for his productions in museums and galleries across the UK (see Christopher Leith Helping Him Archive, Display And Document His Work by Guy Dartnell, vimeo). And currently he’s working on four short plays using half-life-sized marionettes, to be performed in the round: A Handful of Leaves, based on A Ten-Foot Square Hut, the journal of Kamo no Chomei, a thirteenth century poet and Zen monk; The Hedley Kow, an Old English folk tale; Old Bangum, based on an English folk song, and 3 Stages for Lazarus.

Christopher Leith

Christopher Leith

3 Stages of Lazarus

*** Just to let you know, in case you want to see the performance, that Chandra writes about what happens! Ed.

On July 7th, I attended a by-invitation-only work-in-progress performance of 3 Stages for Lazarus at the White Rock Theatre. Described as combining puppetry, acting and music, Leith uses the story of Lazarus, minus Jesus, to explore issues of life, death, illness, transformation and creativity.

Christopher has always been intrigued by the marionette’s unique combination of the stillness of sculpture with the liveliness and animation of the actor. When he talks about his relationship with puppets, his sentences often remain unfinished, as if it’s too full to be talked about.

Quoting freely from his text for the 3 Stages for Lazarus, he says: “There is a spirit in every object that has magic in it… a puppet is like a little nest where the spirits can come down, enjoy being and dance there. Puppets have no free will, a puppet comes to life when it is picked up and it dies when it is put down again ….like an empty shell. Puppets exist in a state which is both alive and dead at the same moment… that’s why puppetry is the most beguiling of all the theatre arts – and the best puppeteers are the ones who let the audience dream in the strongest way. The puppet is only alive in the audience’s imagination, so it’s up to the audience: if it thinks they’re alive, then they are – and if it thinks they’re not alive, then they die”.

The play opens with Lazarus in Prosperity, where he arrives home to his two sisters, Martha and Mary. He is welcomed, but they notice he has a small bloodstain on his tunic from a fight with a couple of Roman cavalry soldiers.

In the second part, Lazarus in Collapse, both puppeteers hold him as he crawls across the stage; his naked wooden body is seen beneath broken garlands and ragged soiled clothes that are like cobwebs. He struggles both towards and away from the grave, where he is eventually laid to rest, dead and buried.

Lastly, there is Lazarus in Transformation. The tomb is opened and the master puppeteer commands Lazarus to arise: three times he calls on him and suddenly Lazarus makes a convulsive movement and stumbles to his knees. It is as if for a moment his whole body is resisting the Master Puppeteer’s command and his own return from the Underworld. Alive again, and out of the grave, Lazarus performs a slow dance, including Martha and Mary – and then also, with a gentle greeting, the audience and the Master Puppeteer, with eloquent gravity expressed in his large blue eyes.

The Unheard Voice

This is just the story, but way beyond that is the meaning, which is carried by the two puppeteers and the Master Puppeteer. Unusually, the two puppeteers are seen on stage at all times and, as they manipulate the puppets, they talk to each other, wondering if puppets are alive and dead at the same time and what the Master Puppeteer is on about.

Surrounded by a screen, the mysterious voice and song of the Master Puppeteer is heard throughout. However, he is no blustering Wizard of Oz character; he explains and directs the play. A mysterious figure, he links this world and the next, neither mortal nor spirit, existing halfway between the human and the puppet world. He tells us again and again that puppets have no volition or power of their own; they are given life by what he calls the ‘Unheard Voice’ – and so are we: “We here on this stage with our play are actually just like those puppets performing in their play. Although we might seem to have it, actually we have no free will and choice at all, and are powerless to make decisions of our own. It is the Unheard Voice which writes the script for us. So the function of puppets is to tell us about our own existence.”

At this moment, he orders the screen around him to be removed – and we see Christopher, the Master Puppeteer, in his wheelchair, wearing headphones leading to the control panel for the music system, surrounded by wood chips.

Christopher Leith with Overcoat Masks

Christopher Leith with overcoat masks

From then on, Leith is the star of the performance, commanding the puppeteers, the puppets and the audience with his presence and his inability to walk freely. He uses this powerfully and movingly to emphasise his idea about puppets and humans when he raises Lazarus from the dead. Together the two puppeteers manipulate Lazarus to show his return to his living body, first as just a shadow of life, then stronger. Wood chips fall from him – and with a supreme effort, he stands and breathes again. Struggling, he moves across to the Master Puppeteer. Christopher sits with his head supported by the back of the chair, his arms immobile on the arms of his wheelchair – and the two puppeteers lift each of his fingers with slow care, inch by inch, one at a time – and thread the puppet’s strings onto his hand. Christopher’s eyes tell us all as Lazarus leans gently against his leg.

The singing in the play is quite eerie – and the words important. Early on in the play, we hear the voice of the Master Puppeteer behind the screen, singing, “An unknown voice speaks to us, now in this way, now in that; but who can hear it? In dreams and visions of the night, when in our bed sleep falls over us, it whispers in our ears. It may whisper in our ears, and terrify us with warnings. Or we may be chastened on a bed of pain, with constant distress in our bones. Our limbs waste away to nothing – and they are fixed so we cannot move. The soul comes near the pit and life to the house of death. Yet the eye has not seen, nor the ear heard; no mind has conceived what is behind the Unheard Voice.”

Christopher’s Unheard Voice is what creativity comes near to; when I interviewed him, we searched for a word that holds the meaning: I thought of ‘nuministic’, but that’s about coin collecting, not at all right. I’d meant ‘numinous’, meaning ‘having a mysterious, holy or spiritual quality, awe-inspiring, evoking a sense of the transcendent, mystical or sublime.’ Christopher calls the process of creativity an image; it’s about a dream, between thought and spirit: it’s numinous, and I think that is Christopher Leith’s Unheard Voice, which he knows well how to listen for and hear.

A few days after the performance, I went to see Christopher – and he was as keen to interview me about my thoughts on the performance as I was him. Look out for my interview, printed in next week’s HOT!

3 Stages for Lazarus will be performed as part of the Little Angel Suspense Festival on Monday 2 November at 2pm and Tuesday 3 November at 11am at JW3, 341-351 Finchley Road, London NW3.

 

Chandra Masoliver has been an avid HOT reader since deciding that Hastings is the place where she would most like to live, looking for a house, and finally finding one in the Old Town.

 

Posted 16:16 Wednesday, Aug 26, 2015 In: Performance

2 Comments

Please read our comment guidelines before posting on HOT

  1. Zelly Restorick

    Thanks for your feedback… I’ll add one in now!

    Comment by Zelly Restorick — Wednesday, Sep 30, 2015 @ 07:40

  2. J

    A lovely article but you should most definitely have a spoiler alert at the start so people who have yet to see the show arent told too much!

    Comment by J — Tuesday, Sep 29, 2015 @ 14:11

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