In the National Theatre’s intimate Cottesloe space, South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company and British playwright Neil Bartlett have collaborated to produce a moving new play that is as far from War Horse as you could imagine.
Part documentary, part mythical tale, Or You Could Kiss Me uses flashbacks, dreams and memories to tell the story of Mr A and Mr B. First meeting as young, lithe 19-year-olds, the South Africans become lovers and spend the next 67 years together until Mr B becomes terminally ill with emphysema.
The play starts in 2036 in a hospital where Mr B is days away from death. The couple are played by beautifully sculptured, near life-sized wooden puppets, their faces wrinkled, with tell-tale loose skin on the tops of their hands. Hunched over and moving with the slow and pained walk of the elderly, each step is poignantly echoed by strained breath and mutterings that cause the puppets to come alive through their recognisable fragility.
The puppets are flanked by up to six puppeteers who are dressed in anonymous black suits with bare feet. Led by a narrator who directs the story, the puppeteers work as one to piece the lives of the couple together, each adding memories and helping Mr A and Mr B recall their story. Like guardian angels, they watch the old men with concerned eyes, reacting to every groan and pained movement as if it is happening directly to themselves.
Younger versions of the couple appear on stage provoked by memories from a photograph or a dream, and in equally dreamlike sequences their taller and more handsome bodies swim over the old men in bed and recount to the audience their first meetings and the story of how they fell in love.
Tackling the nature of memories, the emotions of watching a loved one die and the politics of being gay in the 1970s, Bartlett’s play is an ambitious project and requires the audience to take their focus off the astonishing technical skills showcased and pay attention to the somewhat complicated narrative. But where the show really succeeds is when it focuses on the seemingly mundane realities of life. As the couple struggle to find the right moment to make a will, witnessing them in the lawyer’s office finally giving in to the reality of what will happen is the most intimate view of a couple Bartlett could provide.