Until recently my knowledge of puppetry began with Punch and Judy and ended with Being John Malkovich. But this all changed when master puppeteer and theatre producer Amit Drori invited me to his latest show Savanna: A Possible Landscape. The production is based on the lives of African animals portrayed by handcrafted wooden robots and, like a steampunk Attenborough, Amit invites the viewer to take a robot safari through this mechanical jungle.
I caught up with Drori before a show in London's Barbican centre to talk about the production and meet the robots. When I arrived I found him busy working with projections on large wooden crates while other performers were running around putting batteries in remote controls and working on laptops—it felt more like a Daft Punk sound check than a rehearsal for a puppet show.
After a tour of the set and an introduction to the robotic cast—which included two elephants, a giant tortoise, a gazelle, and an exotic bird—I met the team of artists who spent two dedicated years designing and building the robots from scratch in a small studio in Tel Aviv. “We wanted to have complete control” Drori says, "We needed to create everything ourselves to get the emotions and expressions we wanted from each of the creatures. It was two years of daily work—it became almost an obsession."
As the performance began the narrator explained that the animals are his imagination's attempts to create new life from the pieces of his deceased mother's beloved piano. However, there are other reasons why Drori wanted to create wooden, rather than metal robots. "We wanted them to seem personal. I think the biggest challenge of the production was to make warm machines. We are constantly surrounded by machines, they're produced en masse in factories, and they're cold and impersonal. Each of our machines are one of a kind, they're made with care and emotion."
The robots are certainly impressive, they have an intricate, almost clockwork aesthetic yet somehow they manage to capture the essence of their biological counterparts too. “The whole show is a kind of artificial nature.” Drori explains, “There are five performers on stage and we create this nature from scratch, so in a way we give life, but we also take life. Death is also part of nature. We the performers are the manipulators, the people pulling the strings in the natural world—almost like Gaia.”
This power over life and death is exercised in the performance's most memorable scene where the mother elephant is shot by poachers, leaving the baby to walk the Savannah alone. It’s a very moving scene and testament to Drori and his team’s skill that a remote-controlled wooden elephant can portray such acute sadness.
Explaining his decision to cast elephants in the lead role, Drori told me: "When we began the project we did a lot of research into the animals because we wanted to recreate their anatomy, movements, and behaviors. When researching elephants I found they had a really unbelievable death conscience. They have funerals, they grieve and they bury the bones [of the dead]—then they come back every year and touch and smell the bones. It's incredible and I was really touched by it."
The accuracy of the robots movements and behaviors, while remarkable, left me curious as to why Drori chose to leave the robotics exposed and the wood unpainted—why not go for complete realism? "We're not trying to create an illusion, they're not that realistic. The robots themselves are very exposed, the mechanics are visible throughout the performance. So it was never about creating an illusion, it was about creating a metaphor. When you look at it you don't see an illusion of elephants in the savannah, you see robots of elephants in the savannah, so it's something else—it stands on its own.
The decision to leave their inner workings exposed imbues the robots with a timeless characteristic. They seem as though they were designed centuries ago yet are only now being brought to life. Aesthetically, the robots are very Da Vinci-esque and Drori confirmed that the Vitruvian Man’s creator was a huge inspiration. "There's something about his aesthetic and the way his designs have been preserved by history—they're almost fit for the modern world but the materials set his designs firmly in the past. There is something quite eclectic about him. For me he is the greatest multi-disciplinary artist ever. He's been the greatest inspiration to me—he did so many things and he was always so good in every field. In a way that's how I see theatre. I design, I build, I program, I direct, I act. I like to use whatever I need to express my vision."
After the show I inquired as to Drori's views on the future of theatre. Could he envisage a time when full productions are performed entirely by robots? While the machines in Savannah were captivating, it was obvious the production could not operate without the input of the human cast. Was this something he could see changing as technology advances? "I think that humans will always be at the centre of artistic creation. When there's a machine on stage, there is always a human behind it. Could you imagine an instrument on stage without anyone to play it? The instruments will develop more and more because nowadays technology doesn't just belong to engineers—the knowledge is becoming more and more open source, the information is so free. It's a kind of new raw material, but beyond that you need people to know what to do with it. You have to provide the soul of the medium."
With Savannah, Drori has created something truly special. Not only is he pushing the boundaries of both puppetry and theatre but he's also created an excellent metaphor for man's relationship with technology and the implications that it can have on the natural world. I'm sure I wasn't the only person in the audience asking myself: "Is this what zoos of the future might look like?"