Wattle and Daub’s new comic operetta is in its very subject matter a show that deals with the dichotomy between entertainment and serious reflection. The idea of the freak show is, to modern audiences, relatively simple – it’s one of those terrible things we did back in less enlightened times before we realised disabled people or people of other races were not, shock, actually created to be pointed and laughed at on a stage. We might also refer to the concept of the freak show when producing unflattering comments about, for instance, The Jeremy Kyle Show and other versions of entertainment that appear to still follow this old fashioned format. But the basic points of discussion are the same: it’s a choice between entertainment, laughing at others’ misfortune, and being educated into the view that no human should be ridiculed by others for being different. The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak adds another dimension to this state of affairs by presenting serious historic facts in what can only be described as a highly entertaining and comical fashion.
Audiences to the show are given a much larger booklet of information than normally provided for a short-ish show at an off-beat puppetry festival. Instead of the usual slip of A4 with a few casting details on, this glossy booklet describes the long creative process leading up to the operetta’s birth, specifically Wattle and Daub’s relationship with the Wellcome Trust, pathologist Dr Alan Bates of Bath Spa University, students and academics from the intercalated BA in Medical Humanities course at the nearby University of Bristol and a selection of other academics at Bristol and Swansea. If that wasn’t enough, the artistic directors also went on a tour of the Old Operating Theatre Museum in London and constructed their puppets to look like pathological specimens preserved in formaldehyde.
Which is all really interesting – particularly from the viewpoint of creating art in close connection with the sciences at a time when this is where all the funding in universities is directed. However, it sets up the show to be really quite serious. It’s about changing perceptions of bodies, the doctor-patient dynamic and the inauguration of the autopsy in medical diagnoses (albeit a diagnosis which invariably comes too late). We, the educated and liberal 21st century Tobacco Factory audience, are not here to find it funny that a man once ate a cat. Only we do. Or rather I do (not wanting to tar my fellow audience members with being as unsophisticated as I am). Because the show is hilarious. It’s full of beautiful puppets – beautiful in their own preserving-jar way – and faintly stupid songs.
It might well be that this is where the genius of the production lies, that the cast and creative team have really cleverly co-opted the audience into being exactly who they said they would never be: the people who enjoy freak shows. But it’s hard to detect exactly what is deliberate and what is not. Is it deliberate, for example, that Tarrare’s voice is sung in falsetto by a male performer who looks perennially on the brink of laughter and who makes it sound just the tiniest bit like Kermit the frog, even during the ‘serious’ scenes? Or that Tarrare’s love is one head of a pair of what used to be called Siamese twins before, as I said, that kind of attitude to conjoined twins fell out of fashion and we decided against putting them in the village freak show?
The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak is like a jolly leg-kicking trip around the top floor of the Wellcome Collection with Stephen Sondheim singing in your ear. It is clear, not just from the information leaflet, that so much has gone in to the production of this piece and if its intention is to deliberately make the audience change places with that of an 18th century freak show audience and enjoy an evening of pure entertainment then it succeeds. However, particularly if the leaflet had been omitted, it would have been hard to detect that this was the outcome of a considerable amount of collaboration with universities and medical research institutions. In particular, the fact that this marked a turning point in history with the advent of the autopsy was completely lost – and seemed sort of like a side point to the narrative anyway. This is a great show that I thoroughly enjoyed; I just didn’t know whether to take it seriously or not. But then maybe that is the whole idea.