An invitation to a puppet show with the warning “not suitable for children under 14” is a worry although arguably many a Punch & Judy show merits such a caveat.
Provenance is indeed an M-rated production, but not so much through cheap voyeurism as in its adult themes which are provocative and disturbing. In a masterly work of theatre, Provenance yields a series of fascinating characterisations and eery stories.
The main protagonist is Pity Beane, an earnest and plain art student from Canada. From her early teens Pity has been fascinated with and indeed in love with the character of a strange painting in pre-Raphaelite style of a nude boy embraced by a swan. “Laddie and the swan” , her art professor has mercilessly dubbed it, a contempt for which Pity gets her revenge in a most effective way through an hilarious seminar presentation in which she ridicules the professor and his pretensions.
When unexpected riches come her way, Pity travels to Europe in quest of the painting and its history, or provenance. Her journey takes her to Vienna and to acquaintance with an extraordinary array of characters who people a classy brothel wherein the painting is located. In her dialogues with the characters, and in particular the madam of the establishment, Pity unravels the mystery of the painting while deepening her understanding of art and the human angst it can represent. Her journey includes consideration of such issues as bullying and abuse, loss of innocence and the many dimensions of love. Among other things, Pity’s quest involves a search for beauty and for the meaning of artistic truth.
The production is a quite remarkable tour de force by Ronnie Burkett. For more than two hours he is continuously and energetically on stage, manipulating and providing voices for the marionettes and other puppets, as they walk, sit, chat, sing, dance and even skate around the set. All this on top of having made the marionettes and painted the central work of art, Burkett is revealed as multidimensional in his embrace of the arts.
The drama is not consistently successful. At stages during its uninterrupted flow the momentum evaporates and the show at times slides into self-indulgence. Yet for most of the production the pace and direction make for an evening which is unusual and absorbing. Indeed some of the little characters in their acting out of the drama become so captivating that at times I felt I had zoomed in and was perceiving them as of human stature, with Burkett hovering behind in the darkness like a giant.
Others share the credit with Burkett for the success of Provenance, including fellow Canadians Cathy Nosaty for her music and sound design (how nice it would be to see this show with the music live rather than recorded) and Bill Williams for his lighting design and Kevin Humphrey as director of lighting (which must be a particularly hard ask with such small targets to illuminate!).