Writers/Composers: Tom and Tobi Poster
Director: Sita Calvert-Ennals
Reviewer: Ben Miller-Jarvest
This remarkable show begins and ends in the morgue, as the shrivelled husk of Tarrare is cut open by the doctor who attempted to cure him, drawing out not only the man’s innards, but also the life story of the extraordinary person who lies upon the autopsy table. If this sounds unpleasant, then be warned, this is only the iceberg’s tip when it comes to Wattle and Daub’s The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak, a chamber opera written for puppets. From his beginnings as a carnival attraction to the multiple attempts to cure him and his humiliating experience as a spy for the French Revolution, the show is the compelling true story of a man who spent his entire life so hungry that he would eat offal from the gutters, live cats and even an amputated human limb.
Wattle and Daub take this true story and craft from a gothic masterpiece, with a darkly comic score and libretto and a production design to match. The backdrop is a dark space, full of shelves containing a tangled mess of puppets and specimen jars, which, combined with some superb use of lighting and shadows not to mention inventive use of tables on wheels, creates a world around the Tarrare puppet that is entirely unpitying and unjust. The designs of the puppets are disquieting, with bald heads, heavy brows and grey skin, though the most disconcerting aspect is the hollowed, sunken sockets where their eyes should be. The only puppet to have eyes is Tarrare, which greatly humanises him above the others, and the staring, pleading looks the audience receives from the puppet make his various pitiable plights simultaneously funny and unbearably poignant.
Due the unrelentingly cruel events that mark Tarrare’s life, it would be easy for the show to lose its essential pathos, as too much pain on stage for too long inevitably becomes funny, but Sita Calvert-Ennals walks the tightrope between bleak humour and tragedy flawlessly. Therefore, we do see several lighter directorial touches, such as one puppeteer thrusting the circus impresario puppet high in the air when he reaches a particularly high note. Most of the humour, however, comes from the unrelenting misery of Tarrare; the first act ends with him being recruited as a spy, persuaded by the notion he could be considered a hero, instead of a freak, and the performers break into a cynical homage to the famous marching box-step from Les Miserables. This is funny by itself, but is undercut by the audiences’ awareness that things will hardly improve for Tarrare after the interval.
Of the six performers on stage, two are the musicians who perform Tom Poster’s beautiful score on violin and piano and two are the singers, who both display impressive vocal ranges, stretching between them from the doctor’s pompous baritone to Tarrare’s fragile, distressed male-soprano. However, though the singers also do their share of puppeteering, it is the skill of Tobi Poser and Aya Nakamura that brings Tarrare and his fellow puppets to life, using them to express not only the puppets’ full grotesque potential, particularly in showing Tarrare’s near-constant agony, but also breath-taking subtlety.
Humorous at times, but ultimately cheerless, The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak is a deeply moving true story, beautifully told with gothic aplomb, and not to be missed, though it is certainly not one for the easily depressed, or the faint of heart.
Runs until 28 January 2017, then continues to tour | Image: Barney Witts