The world of puppets

Moving dolls, controlled by artists behind the scenes, have long been a form of entertainment in many regions. BY NICK WALTON ( for Silver Kris newsletter)

Puppet shows featuring the hook-nosed Punch and his nagging wife Judy have been popular entertainment in Britain for over 350 years, but Punch actually originated as a marionette in Italy before arriving in England and evolving into the glove puppet he is today. Punch’s distinctive screeching voice is a vital part of the character and many Punch and Judy puppeteers (known as professors) believe that shows without the use of a swazzle – a reed-like instrument held in the mouth for Punch’s voice – are not true Punch and Judy shows.


The Czech Republic has a long history of puppetry and its marionettes are considered the most complex and beautiful of the world’s marionette traditions. First seen in the middle of the 18th century, when puppet troupes travelled across Europe performing in town squares, Czech marionettes are hand-carved puppets that are controlled from above by wires or strings. By the 19th century, puppet making had evolved into a recognised art form, a tradition continued today by Prague’s Rici Marionette Factory.


First performed in Osaka in the 17th century, Japan’s bunraku puppet shows – also known as ningyo johruri – comprise three components: a narrator, a team of puppeteers known as ningyo-zukai, and musicians playing the three-string shamisen. Once entertainment for commoners, bunraku is now a UNESCO-recognised art form. The realistic movements of each handcrafted character are the result of the skills of three puppeteers clad in black, who control the dolls’ limbs, eyelids, mouth and even eyebrows.


Indonesian shadow puppetry, wayang kulit, is popular on the Hindu-influenced islands of Java and Bali. Performances of the wood and buffalo-hide puppets are usually accompanied by a gamelan orchestra (an ensemble of
percussion instruments like gongs and metal xylophones). Each puppet has moving joints
connected to long slender rods which are manipulated by a dalang or puppetmaster
behind a backlit sheet. Ancient Hindu epics are dramatised in the shows, which can last from evening till dawn the next day.


Despite its 17th-century origins in southern China, budaixi, or glove puppetry, has become a distinctly Taiwanese love affair. Each cloth puppet, with painted wooden faces, hands and feet, can be controlled with one hand as it acts out Chinese operas like Journey to the West. In its traditional form, the lead puppeteer voices all the roles, varying his tone for different characters. The art saw a renaissance after the 2000 Taiwanese movie, Legend of the Sacred Stone, which used only puppet actors.


Thought to have originated in the flooded rice fields of Vietnam’s Red River Delta, mua roi nuoc or water puppets have been a part of Vietnamese culture since the 11th century. Made of lacquered wood, the delightful characters appear to glide across the surface of a pool. They are held up by bamboo poles below the water and manipulated by puppeteers behind a screen. The shows were once as much about honouring the gods as they were entertainment.