‘I am an anti-christ, I am an anarchist’, so sang Jonny Rotten for the Sex Pistols in 1976 but it could easily have been Punch on the streets of London in the late 17th Century. The Theatres were locked by Cromwell and the puritans but the dissenting puppets carried on regardless. Punch was the working class hero: anti-state, anti-marriage, anti-law, anti-God, anti-royalty and anti-landowners. The symbolic power of the puppet to parody and satirise those in power gave a voice to an underclass.

Across the world, repressed voices have been heard via the puppet. Underground performances in Czechoslovakia under Hitler’s reign and the agit-prop anarchy of ‘Petrushka’ in revolutionary Russia. Alfred Jarry’s attack on the French bourgeoisie in ‘Ubu Roi’, (first performed with marionettes), and Guignol street-shows kept under surveillance by Napoleon III.  Closer to home, giant puppet effigies of The Pope, Hitler, Idi Amin, Thatcher, Bush and Blair have been ceremonially burnt by the Bonfire Boys of Lewes on Guy Fawkes Night.

Of course, the visual nature of the Puppet is also ideal for TV. I was at university in the early 1980’s and never missed a night in watching ‘Spitting Image’. Everyone was a target, from the tyrannical cross-dressing Mrs Thatcher to Norman Tebbit the leather-clad bovver-boy. David Steel partly blamed the failure of the SDP-Liberal alliance on the programme, having been depicted as a tiny figure living inside David Owen’s pocket.

As a young idealistic student feeling oppressed by the state of the nation, these latex characterisations were a solace. I wasn’t the only one feeling angry and upset by the ignorant and duplicitous acts of those in power. The spirit of Punch lives on.

Puppetry and politics have always been uncomfortable bed-fellows and this relationship is one which we are investigating at this years Suspense: London Puppetry Festival. If the inaugural festival in 2009 was ‘exploding the myth that Puppetry isn’t just for kids’ , this years focus is on ‘the radical voice of the puppet’.

In 2009 I visited the Fadj Theatre Festival in Tehran. I knew very little of the Iranian Theatre scene but was immediately struck by the symbolic nature of so much of the work and the sophisticated visual dramaturgy. Beckett-like images gave an over-riding sense of a culture in flux, a country coming to terms with its past and exploring the possibilities of the future. The puppetry could express desires and possibilities that would be censored if spoken and bypassed any limitations I envisaged with dance and male/female contact being prohibited by the Islamic Republic. The festival was packed and audiences responses were more like Old Trafford on a Saturday afternoon than the National Theatre. It is of course a credit to the Dramatic Arts Centre of Tehran that such a festival exists and I approached them in 2009 to support bringing over Yas-e-Tamam, to the inaugural Suspense: London Puppetry Festival. Unfortunately, the political situation in Tehran had worsened with the re-election of Ahmadinejad and this was not possible.

Two years later and the headlines today talk of an Iranian plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador in Washington. This is refuted by Iran but I am not sure what actions the Obama administration might take. I am hoping that this will not affect Yas-e-Tamam’s visit to the SUSPENSE festival this year. They are presenting their production of Lorca’s ‘The House of Bernarda Alba’, a politically charged play which codifies the state of civil unrest present in Spain. Bernarda Alba’s tyranny over her 5 daughters foreshadows Franco’s fascist regime. Sadly, it was also Lorca’s last play before his execution. Told using mask and puppetry it is another example of the power of the medium to be used as a radical and subversive tool. It can provoke change and challenge the status quo.

As part of SUSPENSE, the Little Angel are presenting a symposium on ‘Puppetry and Politics’ including a talk by Gary Friedman from South Africa. Gary set up ‘Puppets against Aids’, ‘Puppets against Apartheid’ and ‘Puppets for Democracy’. He talks eloquently of the puppet as a metaphor which can unite across cultural, language and social divides and his work is an example of the positive impact that can be made.

We who study the art of giving life to the inanimate, who have ‘the soul of the puppet in the palm of our hand’ as Sergei Obratstzov, the famous Russian puppeteer has said, must also push the boundaries of what this coarse, grotesque, beautiful and most ancient of art-forms is capable of saying about the world we live in.

Now that’s the way to do it.

30 companies, 11 venues, 10 days from Oct 28th – Nov 6th. I hope you can make it. www.suspensefestival.com

Peter Glanville is Director of the Suspense Festival and Artistic Director of Little Angel Theatre

The suspense festival runs from 28th October -6th November 2011. 30 companies perform across 11 venue.

Image by VisitManchester on Flickr.