Do you have a wunderkammer? Or a kunstkammer, for that matter? Had you lived in the 16th century and had a buck or two to your name you might well have had one. The wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, was where you kept all of your assembled treasures symbolic of wealth and education. This could mean pretty much anything, although many of the famous collectors appear to have had quite a predilection for wildlife and other artefacts that we would now classify as ‘natural history’. So along with your miniature portraits and filigree eggs, you might also keep a few choice pieces of taxidermy and some coral recently offloaded from boats returning from exotic new lands. The world of curiosities was, fittingly for this performance, a mixture of fact and fiction itself. A particularly prized possession of such a wunderkammer might have included, for instance, a narwhal’s tusk sneakily classified under ‘unicorn horn’ (well, if none of your guests are any the wiser…).
The ‘cabinet’ itself was actually much more often a room and in this performance Figuren Theater Tübingen have bought to life Night-In-The-Museum-style one such wunderkammer. There are no unicorn/nahwals, but there are disembodied hands providing hair dressing services, teeny-weenie golden birds and some abstract artworks brought to life in the form of Mr. Very Happy and Mr. Feeling Blue, who eventually swap places to live in each others’ colourscape.
The three puppeteers, Alice Therese Gottschalk, Raphael Mürle and Frank Soehnle, are kitted out in the kind of outfits non-Germans imagine our Northern European friends wear when feeling misty-eyed after a few too many glasses of Glühwein. Throughout the performance I kept drifting in to my own version of Homer Simpson’s The Land of Chocolate fantasy, only mine was blended with something more sinister, like Alma’s visit to the toyshop.
The beasts of the wunderkammer all seems fairly benevolent, to the extent that when a mischievous puppeteer snips the string of one’s beloved kite it feels like he just snipped its heartstring instead. On which note, is there anything more disturbing than the presence of scissors – great gleaming silver dressmakers scissors – in the middle of a puppet show? Just seeing them glint in the lights feels like witnessing the breaking of an evil taboo, the anticipation of potential massacre filling the theatre.
Once you understand the concept of the wunderkammer, this is a charming and brilliantly executed show that takes an age-old idea – toys coming alive after you leave the room – and makes it feel fresh and exciting all over again, very much like revisiting a favourite childhood memory. Without this knowledge the production can feel a little narrative-less, more a series of skits than a complete show. However, once one knows what one’s dealing with then the only step forward is to step back to 1577 and build one. If I could just find me a unicorn horn to go next to the stuffed beaver…