In Forget Me Not Canadian puppet master Ronnie Burkett invites the audience into the ramshackle and dystopic immersive land of The New Now. Upon entering the vast cavernous space in Carriageworks we come into a parlour-like setting, mismatched chairs, chaise lounges, piles of books and candles abound, festoon lighting sets the mood. For the observant, there is a figure slumped in a corner like an oversized doll or a discarded toy. Once everyone is seated the figure arises and delivers a lengthy opening monologue, setting up the world we have now become active participants in and effectively establishing the dynamics of dramaturgy written in a female voice but delivered by a man. This central character of She will be played out in a variety of forms as the performance progresses. She, The Keeper of the Lost Hand in druidess robes stalks around the room, setting the scene and raising the question: will She be the largest puppet in the show and, if so, who is pulling the strings?
When the hood is pushed back we meet Burkett, playing the fool and the master, and establishing the parameters of the performance, clarifying our roles within the production – for we are now all part of the New Now and will play the ‘Others’. He also makes clear that no cell phones or devices are permitted: “it’s how they track you” and “be quiet for they are listening”.
The audience is invited to not get too attached to our seats and to collect torches to spotlight the marionettes through the show. We are invited to move around freely to view the unfolding vignettes – this is not an evening of theatre for the shy or shrinking violets. We become the maestros, queuing up the soundscape composed by John Alcorn on the record player when commanded. We are taught about our companions for the evening and how to operate them – we all become puppeteers. The hand gesture to operate the puppets is the same as the symbol for love in American sign language, helping to cement one of the underlying themes in the show.
After we collect our Others we spend a few brief moments getting acquainted – I named mine Luna. These puppets are exquisitely designed and handcrafted by The 100 Handpuppets Project. It was touching to see people engaging and connecting with each other and the puppets, many audience members had a look on their faces as if being transported back to their childhood. With the audience now effectively doubled, we are invited to sit on the floor to join the show, as Burkett dons a Punch and Judy tent costume and plays out a scene on it. Surveying the crowd, most are holding their Others up high, as if these little puppets are watching the show.
The Others participate in a number of ceremonies and rituals, as The New Now is a land where written words have been forbidden. We attend a funeral with a tiny cardboard coffin, see the trials and tribulations of love and loss and man’s folly. We come to understand the importance of forgotten words and throughout are reminded that there is nothing more sacred than a well written love letter. Rather than being a hidden puppet master, Burkett is clearly visible and uses his physicality to add to the theatre, whether skilfully controlling the marionettes or simply using the head of a puppet on one finger in an incredibly intimate scene where an audience member paints She’s fingers in Forget Me Not Blue nail polish. Burkett is mesmerising to watch both almost equal parts retrained and bounding around exuberantly like a court jester.
Despite this, the narrative is dense and layered with meaning and symbolism hinting at a debasement of the written word and the importance of the lost oral traditions. The delivery is fragmentary and disjointed, making it hard to coherently following what is going on – a cohesive storyline is secondary to the show’s theatrics.
Forget Me Not is a meditation on love, loss, connectivity and a heartfelt reminder of the power and symbolism of the written word, especially words of love.
Forget Me Not is at Carriageworks until January 26 as part of Sydney Festival