Whimsical Humour with "Darkness and Mayhem"

21 01 2022

Photo: Knuckle & Joint

Author: Gareth Vile

Looking at Knuckle and Joint’s contemporary self-definition, their vision is to "adapt familiar stories to be enjoyed in a new, modernized and interactive show for early years and young children." Founded in 2014 by Bex O’Brien and Peter Morton, their artistic director O’Brien is passionate about ensuring that theatre for young people is both innovative and accessible.

However, in 2015, Knuckle and Joint did bring a work aimed at older audiences to the Edinburgh Fringe. Promising the "debauchery and murder of some of the most decrepit puppets to crawl out of a back alley," The Black Hood Cabaret combined whimsical humour with "darkness and mayhem".  For O’Brien and Morton, the inspiration both came from the bunraku tradition and a desire to play around with the boundaries of genre.

"We have always found the traditional hoods for the Bunraku school of puppetry ridiculous," they explained. "Looking at old photos and videos the hoods have points and are all over the place; this inspired the concept of The Black Hoods clowns."

How did cabaret help to define the show’s structure?

The Cabaret bit came from an intrigue with the genre and the exploration of puppetry for adults. We wanted to make a show that could be toured with two performers and fitted down into suitcases for the late-night trains. We built up the show from ideas of small scenes, developing them in front of cabaret audiences and finally bringing them all together in a coherent show. 

Where does this piece fit with your usual work?

The main medium that links our work is the use of puppetry. We have created a whole of range of puppets for our shows ranging from large outdoor puppets and the small table top ones we use in The Black Hoods Cabaret. Alongside this our dry, sarcastic humour and ability to improvise often finds its way into the work we do. Our productions are always original stories created out of a devising process that doesn’t start with a script.

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?

The audience can be expected to have a literal puppet slap in the face as our "brother and sister" duo try and put on an epic cabaret. It will be surreal, sometimes and little abstract, and defiantly a lot of milking lowest form of wit. Expect puppet nudity, death, and a twisted interpretation of society through the eyes of two puppeteers desperately trying to come to terms with being adults.  

What particular traditions and influences would you acknowledge on your work - have any particular artists, or genres inspired you and do you see yourself within their tradition?

We love silent comedy and have spent long evenings digging through archives of Chaplin, Keaton and Wisdom. Growing up we loved surreal comedies such as Monty Python, Shooting Stars and The Mighty Boosh. As well as comedy, is the clear influence through the westernised form the Japanese Bunraku puppetry: table top puppetry. 

A lot of the techniques we use also fall into line with the philosophies of the Handspring Puppet Company; such as breath, weight, focus and micro-movement. Our love for animated shorts and movies has defiantly influenced the way we approach humour and build stories. 

Do you have a particular process of making that you could describe - where it begins, how you develop it, and whether there is any collaboration in the process?

Through our devising process we create, build, refine and then repeat. Through the process of making The Black Hoods Cabaret we have taken shorter versions of the show around cabarets in Kent and London; trying new things and refining what we have. We have found working with the cabaret form is a great way to test short pieces and have immediate audience response: to tell what works and what does not. We also spend a lot of time in the workshop where we make all of our own puppets, props and set.

A large part of our devising process is building puppets and then rebuilding them to suit the development of the piece. One tricky aspect of devising The Black Hoods Cabaret was the fact there was only two of us in the rehearsal room; both performing. It’s really important to have an outside eye so we got around this by filming everything and inviting individuals into our rehearsals to offer feedback and a fresh perspective on the work we produced.