Ronnie Burkett, a master among puppet masters, returns to Australia with a gothic end-of-civilisation fantasy. He spoke to Time Out from his home in Toronto
Hi Ronnie, tell us about your new show?
I had been thinking about an end-of-days piece and I was wondering what would it would be, would it be plague, end of oil, climate change. There are so many choices right now. After a few months I just thought, what if it all happened at once? And that's what it is, the end of civilisation, as seen from a blind woman's rooming house.
What's the artistic attraction of the apocalypse?
It was Dr David Suzuki, actually. He made an interesting statement just before I started thinking about Penny. Someone asked him, 'How will the world survive with all this terrible stuff going on.' His answer was, 'Well the world will survive. The world will go on, but we won't.' That's what got me thinking.
I personally think we're already living in the garden of Eden, in paradise. All paradise needs is for the humans to leave. So Penny Plain is all not doom and gloom it's actually about the planet healing itself.
We've just seen the King Kong spectacular here in Melbourne and late last year we saw War Horse. As someone who has been doing this for more than forty years, what do you think about the current vogue for puppets and the spectacular?
Vogue shmogue! Although, I have a lot of respect for what they're doing. I know the War Horse guys, and they're the best men you could meet in their craft, and last time I was in Melbourne I got a sneak peak of the Kong in action.
As the commercial puppets get larger, I find myself getting smaller and smaller, a desire to make puppets more intimate. And that's what Penny is. It's really a very intimate conversation with the audience about life after people.
Is there something special about the marionette?
The marionette is always dying. When I started out I'd come from many years working in television. I wanted to take puppets back to theatre. The marionette to me is not a television puppet: it's a puppet for the theatre. You get a full body, and you can tell a story about the puppet as soon as it gets on stage, with its physicality, the way it walks, its body language.
When I started it was quite daring for the puppeteer to come out of the booth. Now you can't swing a cat without hitting a puppeteer. This time I thought it would be interesting to step back. So I'm completely off stage. These are the longest strung puppets I've worked with. I play no character and the puppets do all the work.
Take us through some of the characters we can expect to meet in Penny's rooming house.
Apparently, within two weeks of humans disappearing, domesticated dogs would all be feral. So we begin the show with Penny's talking dog, a sort of gentleman companion. He comes back after two weeks and he's not a gentleman any more.
In the middle of the show we meet a pair of interlopers, Mel and Barbara Titty, American survivalists who have come up from the evangelical south of the US. He's an Elvis impersonator and she's the visage of a Barbie doll forty years older.
There's a serial killer who kills people who perform on their mobile phones on public transport. She follows them home and kills them. It's is an urge many of us have had.
We also meet a young girl called Tuppence. She passes herself off as a dog to get a job as Penny's new canine companion. She doesn't want to be human anymore. She's seen enough.
So we see the order flipping and jumping, with dogs becoming human and humans becoming dogs.