the brain

In a clinically white setting, with full-length white fabric backdrops suspended from rig to floor, among boxes draped with white sheets, lies a lifesize puppet of Albert Einstein. As the play begins, two puppeteers dressed as scientists enter and impersonally start to record their observations. Another scientist enters secretively and removes Einstein’s brain. So starts Inkfish’s production, which plays with the notion of humanity and inhumanity through the medium of puppetry. The story unfolds as a slow-moving ideological narrative which centres around the Russell-Einstein pacifist manifesto drafted by Einstein and Bertrand Russell, backed by 11 international scientists, including Einstein, who signed it a few days before he died. The show charts Einstein’s development from his early days at the patent office in Bern to his marriage, the founding of the ‘Olympia Academy’ and a glimpse into the world of its weekly meetings, a fabulously entertaining demonstration of the theory of relativity, the Einsteins’ move to Berlin and their eventual arrival in New York, the outbreak of war, the Nobel prize, and Einstein’s demise. To chart this story, the Inkfish puppeteers are not clad in traditional black, but are all conspicuously dressed in white. They use video cameras to record events. They chart data on clipboards, and use computers to control events. Their stance is impersonal rather than inhuman. By contrast, the puppets in this production really come alive. The construction of the 3-dimensional puppets of different sizes is first class, and the manipulation professional. The company also uses 2-dimensional puppets made of vintage photographs. At a distance these work well, but when magnified through video image projectedon screen, every detail shows up, and the rough edges of outlines where backing material is visible behind the figures detracts from the final effect, particularly when contrasted with perfection in terms of the 3-dimensional figures. Nevertheless, inventive and well-designed theatres within suitcases and clocks worked very well, echoing the nature of Einstein’s work and life which crossed boundaries, and informed by a personal quote by Einstein, ‘If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.’ While there were moments of great beauty in this production, and digital imagery and film footage was put to good use, the show as a whole moved slowly, and seemed to be more of a proud exhibition of an extended foray by a team of researchers into a picture and movie archive than a dramatic narrative at times. By contrasting inanimate puppets with humans and juxtaposing that partnership on a polarised examination of humanity vs inhumanity, the relationship between the human and the inanimate, the puppeteer and the puppet, the video camera operator and the image-capturing device is inevitably brought to the fore … while the puppetry skills succeeded in transcending the mundane, revealing a subtle message of what humanity at its best is capable of, the skills of the video camera operator, unfortunately, did not manage to reach this level, resulting in a jerky and unsatisfactory quality to the onscreen image projected via a live feed, and the disharmony between themes of the impersonal vs the inhuman jarred. It is strange that, given the name of the show, more was not made of the story of what happened to Einstein’s brain after his death – a story full of adventure, intrigue, mystery, and a compelling narrative between opposing forces of scientific interest and basic human values. Nevertheless, the show raises important questions which sparked debate among audience members afterwards - Was Einstein a puppet manipulated by forces greater than himself? Are scientists all-powerful? And how do you define humanity? Isn’t scientific rigour a valid human pursuit? After all, it’s what spurred Einstein on, isn’t it? To have achieved so much with a puppetry show is no mean feat. Both Inkfish and the team behind the Suspense London Puppetry Festival are to be congratulated heartily for their dedication and commitment to addressing these themes.

Reviews by Leon Conrad

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The Blurb

US based company Inkfish present “The Brain” - an experiment in puppet theatre exploring the life and science of Albert Einstein.

Travel through time and memory. We begin with Einstein’s death and then journey through fragments of memory - scenes from his life, and his most famous thought experiments that led to the Special and General Theories of Relativity. At the core of this production are Einstein’s letters to President Theodore Roosevelt which initiated the Manhattan Project and his last act - the signing of the Russell/Einstein Manifesto, a global call for nuclear disarmament. “The Brain” is our fantasy of Einstein taking back the bomb.

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