The legend of ‘The Hartlepool Monkey‘ has survived the test of time, capturing the imagination of people of all ages for over 200 years, and landing here, on the shores of the 21st century, more relevant than ever. A boisterous crew tell this timely tale through spirited sea shanties and mischievous puppetry from Gyre & Gimble, original puppeteers on War Horse. We chat to co-directors of Gyre & Gimble, Toby and Finn Caldwell who told us more about their re-imagining of the classic legend before it comes to The Lowry on Fri 3 & Sat 4 November.
For those who don’t know, could you tell us what the legend of The Hartlepool Monkey is?
The legend says that during the Napoleonic Wars a French ship ran aground off the coast of England. The ship’s mascot, a chimpanzee, survived but the townsfolk mistook the monkey in his military uniform for a spy, and condemn him to a life-or-death trial. In our version we’ve added another survivor, a stowaway cabin girl.
Wow, what a legend. So how have you managed to make your staging of The Hartlepool Monkey different?
F: Well, quite early on we felt that the whole thing should feel like a shipwreck which moves and transforms through the story. We also wanted the set to be able to be ‘puppeteered’. The actions of moving between scenes feel very physical with our ensemble of actors.
T: And what’s been really exciting is that as the show is touring the UK and visiting lots of different size venues and spaces, we needed to build the production to be self-sufficient in terms of set. The set itself features an open framework, so we have pulleys, masts and other scenic elements which give the feel of being at sea or on a ship which has run aground.
Ohh I feel seasick thinking about it. So what drew you to the story, and why do you think its relevant now?
F: We’re both from the North East, so we’d grown up with the story to a certain extent.
T: We’d also both just finished working on The Elephantom, and in the aftermath of that we started looking for a story which could have a puppet as an, ideally non-human, central character.
F: After we looked more into the legend and started working on the project, it really became clear to us how relevant the themes are in terms of the current world situation. The ‘us and them’ rhetoric of the story is definitely (unfortunately) apparent in some parts of the world at the moment.
So how do you go about making a show like this that’s so wrapped up in myth and legend?
F: We’re still relatively new as a company, having only made a handful of shows together, but we almost always start with the puppet. We find out what the puppet needs to do in the story, how its narrative works, how the physical object works; that’s how we usually prototype.
T: And we usually have two Research and Development stages – one process on solving the puppet and the other on solving the story and the characters around the puppet. On The Hartlepool Monkey this meant sitting down with the writer, Carl Grose, and storyboarding the sequence of scenes for the narrative on paper, developing it from the original myth. For storyboarding, we essentially come up with ideas on a bunch of post-it notes and put them in a line. This allows us, in our very visual brains, to see the arc of characters, the possible set changes between scenes, and we’re able to make sure that the puppetry stays central to the narrative in driving it forward.
That’s amazing to hear about the puppets and the way you story board. So why do you think the show particularly appeals to families?
T: The dynamism of it and the playful sense of anarchy. When we made The Elephantom, (which was for four year olds and their families) we made it using our sense of humour and taste, whilst always remaining being aware of the suitability and engagement of young children.
F: And because puppetry communicates non-verbally, everyone can understand and take something away from the production. So an adult may well be experiencing something more complex, whilst a child is simultaneously being entertained by the more face-value visuals stage.
What’s the story behind Gyre & Gimble, and what have you worked on before?
T & F: We originally met as puppeteers on the original production of War Horse at the National Theatre. We later made The Elephantom and subsequently founded the company in 2014. Since then, all of our Gyre & Gimble projects have been collaborations. We’ve created puppetry for Michael Morpurgo’s Running Wild, Dr Seuss’s The Lorax and a new musical The Grinning Man, but The Hartlepool Monkey is our first project as company leading the creative process and the first fully instigated ‘Gyre & Gimble’ show.
What’s next for you both?
F: The play I worked on earlier this year, Angels in America, is transferring from the National Theatre to Broadway.
T: I’m doing Pinocchio, the stage adaptation of the Disney Movie at the National Theatre at Christmas with a lot of puppets.
Gyre & Gimble’s next project is at The Globe Theatre. We’re collaborating with a composer called Max Richter on his re-composition of the Four Seasons, by devising a piece of puppetry theatre which will accompany his work.
And what would your top puppeteering tips be for someone starting out?
T: Start really simple and try it yourself – you’ll see in our puppet tutorial film that you don’t need complicated materials to make your own puppet at home.
In the UK there’s no particular ancient puppetry school with masterful training like in other parts of the world. There are places you can go and learn about it, but if you’re young and starting out just give it a go.
F: Don’t be frightened of it! It doesn’t have to feel like it’s sophisticated and you don’t need puppets which are difficult to make. We start prototyping with paper, string, rope and card. So just get your hands dirty and give it a go!
The Hartlepool Monkey will be at The Lowry Fri 3 & Sat 4 November. For tickets and information visit the website or call 0843 208 6000.