The puppetry arts are an ancient creative form, with archaeological evidence from early civilisations, and although some people may think it ‘old hat’, in parts of the world special artists and craftspeople strive to keep the magic of traditional puppet theatre alive.
Puppet theatres nurture a truly unique artistic language that can never be eclipsed by modern technological entertainments. The skill and sweat that go into quality marionette theatre is astounding, as is the energy created by a talented team of designers and puppeteers.
As a traveller I always want the world on a string so whenever I find a puppet theatre on my travels I make sure to check it out because a puppet show is not just for kids! Perhaps the most fascinating and intriguing thing about puppet theatre is how similar art forms have developed in vastly different countries around the world. It seems to reflect a deeply human instinct to represent ourselves.
Here are my top 10 puppet theatre picks from across the globe:
The Salzburg Marionette Theatre, Austria
A show at the historic Salzburg Marionette Theatre is an amazing experience and this beautiful theatre on Schwarzstrasse offers a range of productions that keep visitors coming back for more. The theatre has been inscribed on the Unesco world heritage list and it has 100 years of incredible tradition.
The Salzburg Marionette Theatre offers a wonderful mix of child-like fairytale with a proper (grown-up) theatre experience. Of course they are particularly famous for The Sound of Music! You can see puppets and sets from the theatre at the Marionette Museum up at the Hohenzollern Fortress in Salzburg.
Water Puppetry in Hanoi, Vietnam
Water puppetry goes back to the 11th century in northern Vietnam and has evolved into a unique form of the puppetry arts in Asia. Lacquered wooden puppets dance above the water of a pool with the puppeteers controlling them from behind a screen. It brings to mind the flooded rice fields of Vietnam. The Thăng Long water puppet theatre in Hanoi is a lovely place to visit.
Traditional puppet theatre of Myanmar
Marionette theatre or yok-thai pwe enjoyed an important place in Myanmar’s performing arts tradition in the 18th and 19th centuries. Favourite tales involve royal court intrigue and moral instruction. The British colonial era saw this wonderful tradition almost die out but there are still a few families keeping the flame alive.
Aung’s Puppet Show in Nyaung Shwe (the main village at Inle Lake) is one such company, where Aung is carrying on the skills and traditions of his family. The puppets are colourfully-dressed and up to a metre high. You can see similarly exquisite puppets from hundreds of years ago in the National Museum in Yangon.
Ortigia in Sicily
The Opera of the Puppets, or Opera dei Pupi, is the Sicilian form of marionette puppet theatre, which has been designated a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage form. It originated in the 13th century and featuers elaborate painted sets and large, beautifully dressed (and armed) puppets. The stories are interpretations of romantic poems form the early Middle Ages.
You can see Sicilian puppet artistry in Palermo and also in the beautiful town of Ortigia, which is part of Syracuse. The Piccolo Teatro dei Pupi is an amusing way to spend an evening in Ortigia, whether or not you have children in tow. The fight scenes are particularly entertaining. Shows are in Italian but it is easy to understand what is going on.
England’s classic Punch & Judy
The darkly comic world of the stick-wielding Punch and his wife Judy, along with a cast of eccentric characters, has been entertaining children and adults since 1662 in Britain. Despite being associated with British culture its origins are in 16th-century Italian commedia dell’arte, in particular the Neapolitan character of Pulcinella.
Punch and Judy shows aren’t as common as they once were in the UK but the annual Covent Garden May Fayre and Puppet Festival in London guarantees laughs. Crowd interaction is an important part of the experience so don’t hesitate to yell at the characters.
Another brilliant place to see a traditional Punch & Judy show is at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. This was Queen Victoria’s summer residence and down on the bathing beach they put on very traditional Punch & Judy shows for visitors.
The shadow puppets of Bali
Traditional Balinese culture features a candle-lit form of shadow puppets called Wayang kulit. This puppet theatre goes beyond light entertainment and presents intricate interpretations of Hindu epic stories. Not all visitors can cope with six hours of traditional Balinese shadow puppetry so most prefer to take in the much briefer versions performed in the cultural town of Ubud.
The Royal Theatre of Toone in Brussels, Belgium
Traditional puppetry is alive and well at the end of a cobblestoned alleyway in central Brussels. The Royal Theatre of Toone looks a bit like a tavern at first glance and in fact the bar is one of the oldest in Brussels. It’s a brilliant place for a drink in Brussels even if you don’t catch a show.
Shows have been put on here since 1830 and classic tales are told in Bruxellois, the ancient language that mixes French and Flemish. Don’t worry, the plays are easy to follow and action-packed. Even before the Toone theatre started up, puppetry was traditional in Brussels on winter nights, especially in the Marolles district.
The National Marionette Theatre of Prague, Czech Republic
The Czech capital of Prague is filled with puppet-related fun. You can see a show at the National Marionette Theatre, and take a puppet home with you from one of the several puppet retailers in the city selling Prague’s famed hand-made wooden marionettes. Under the famed Charles Bridge is the Marionette Shop, or try the Rici Marionette Factory and markets often sell beautiful puppets.
Ancient Bunraku in Osaka, Japan
Bunraku traditional Japanese puppetry involves large, intricately designed puppets that usually require multiple puppeteers to create life-like movement. There are only a few companies remaining active in Japan but they work to keep the traditions alive. The best places to see traditional Japanese puppet theatre is at the National Bunraku Theatre in either Osaka or Tokyo.
The Little Angel Theatre in Islington, London
This puppet theatre is a place where all the skills and magic of traditional puppet theatre are used and transformed for modern audiences. From traditional fairy tales to modern works, the team here create mesmerising creative productions for children and their families in this tiny (100-seat) theatre in the London Borough of Islington, which was a former Temperance hall. They also have workshops and alternative performance space around the corner. If you’re visiting London with children I highly recommend going to a show.
By Natasha von Geldern
Do you love puppet theatre? Share your favourite experiences of puppet theatre around the world!