I was at the National Theatre on London’s South Bank last week, looking at an exhibition to mark its 50th birthday. It made me think about the productions I have seen in the three theatre spaces over the years. There have been many memorable afternoons and evenings, from Anthony Hopkins in ‘Pravda’ in the 80s to ‘War Horse’ more recently. However, the play that most sticks in my mind is this one from 2011.
‘Or You Could Kiss Me’ featured puppets from Handspring, the company behind ‘War Horse’. I loved ‘War Horse’ but this play was more affecting, somehow. It could be because the puppets were human, three quarter life sized. It could be because the story traced the life long relationship between two men.
Set in South Africa, the story starts with one man from the couple, ill and at the end of his life. His partner cares for him and helps him prepare for the end. Together, they must find the right way to say ‘goodbye’. But we also see the same men as their younger selves, finding the courage to show their love for each other in a society that is not known for its tolerance of difference. The play spans their life together from meeting in the 70s to 2036.
The play was directed by Neil Bartlett and written by him and Handspring Puppet Company. It might be better to say ‘developed’ rather than written. Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones are the founders of Handspring and they, along with the other members of the cast, developed the story.
There were six actors/puppeteers involved in this play. Unlike ‘War Horse’ where the puppeteers quickly became background, here they were essential to the action, voicing the men in one moment, acting as nurses or carers at others. They handled the puppets tenderly, one is very ill after all, but then produced young puppets to swim and glide through the ‘water’ with great energy. We never forgot they were there but they were never in the way!
Adjoa Andoh acted as a narrator, guiding us through this story, and taking multiple parts as housekeeper, attorney, doctor. Her presence provided us with the sense that we were spectators of the life of this couple.
‘Or You Could Kiss Me’ is a love story. The young men start a relationship full of hope but with some anxiety. The old men have much to look back on but know that their partnership will end. It needs to end on the right note. The Cottesloe was the right space for such an intimate and poignant play. It was about a gay relationship but it need not have been. It works because here we see two people who each committed himself to the other. The theme is universal. Love is where it falls.
‘Or You Could Kiss Me’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?