Dead Wedding, the latest show by the staggeringly brilliant puppeteers Faulty Optic, is a startlingly uncomfortable experience. Draining, desolate and riddled with off-kilter melancholy, this is a brooding, lyrically bleak hour and a half of netherworldy puppetry.
Dead wedding takes as its starting point the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, a story that seems to returning with a troubling regularity; as if there is something about it, the doomed attempts at overcoming death, the inevitability of human weakness, that nags at us. In Faulty Optic’s retelling the story has an almost political resonance to it, the feel of a show created while war reports blare from the television in the background. Indeed, we begin like something out of a piece of scathing anti-Neo Con agitprop, with bloated half naked Pluto, god of the underworld, sat squatly over a grave stone that he is ringing like a slot machine, sending coins fountaining up around him to his obvious glee.
From the start the myth, as far as we know it, has run its course. We are already in the underworld. A post-apocalyptic scrapheap Hades of rusting tin drums and salvaged bric-a-brac. Eurydice washes her memory away repetitively in a crude industrial shower and an amputee Orpheus, like a ghoulish down-and-out Vietnam veteran, scuttles around on a tiny wooden cart, unable to find the legs ripped away by the frenzied Bacchae. This Hades is a desolate, listless place, bathed in palid green light and echoing to a soundscape half-heard sentences drowned in dissonant blending of electronica and live string music.
In this post-traumatic universe Orpheus struggles to grasp the normality of his previous life, setting up Kodak moment dates with the distracted Eurydice that feel distorted, dangerous and hollow. Playing his lyre (and with two crude puppet masks made from Jiffy bags) he tries to recapture normality, his tiny erratic gestures bristling with a fierce, doomed hopefulness.
There is a haunting absence of humanity in this disturbing little world, even the faces of the puppeteers are concealed behind sinister black vales. The smooth, near-perfecct manipulation of the puppets is a striking contrast to the halting, juddery movement of their creations – crawling in stylised bursts across their tattered landscape.
This unworldly movement is brilliantly effective when it serves the company’s most punchy and disturbing scenes, crudely metaphorical vignettes that touch the dark absurdity of Terry Gilliam. Possibly the best of the of them all is a beautiful scene in which the dainty figures of Orpheus and Eurydice dance jaggedly on the top of great white wedding cake, slowly however a giant sinister creature (like a winged Cerberus) hovers into the scene pecking Eurydice to pieces in front of the tiny devastated figure of Orpheus. While he still grasps at her headless torso Pluto blusters in, threatening Orpheus with a long knife before brutally slicing the cake in two, amputating the lovers from each other, and scoffing from its centre. Almost Punch and Judyish in its absurd cruelty, the scene is beautiful, macabre and effortlessly haunting.
At times though the relentless inhumanity of this scarred universe does become almost unbearable. Mira Calix mesmerising and deafening loud musical score writhes under your skin with a prikly jerkiness that perfectly matches the small figures cavorting across the stage. By the end of ninety minutes there is little surprise, indeed only a crushing inevitability, in the bleakness of the show’s ending, as Orpheus abandons his futile attempts to reclaim love, the past and normality, instead cutting the strings of his Lyre and drowning himself in his own forgetting; a cruel reflection of our own listless response to a world mired in tragedy.