Ben Glasstone on Monstro Theatre’s The King of Nothing
This autumn, Monstro Theatre present The King of Nothing at the Little Angel Theatre. Promising musical madness and puppets aplenty, this is a reimagined version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes; a popular story, often staged – but perhaps not like this. We donned our finest outfit to chat with Artistic Director Ben Glasstone to find out why this production is somewhat different from all the rest.
Ben, there have been a billion trillion versions of The Emperor’s New Clothes over the years, but I suspect that Monstro’s will be somewhat distinctive. It’s a puppet musical version of the classic story to start with, so not a stuffy morality tale as we might sometimes see it?
It’s a long way from stuffy! Yes, it’s full of rollicking songs, clowning and lovably daft puppets, so that helps. But also, any ‘morality tale’ that’s survived as long as this one is bound to have a lot more to it than a simple lesson-to-be-preached. As I discovered years ago when adapting various Aesop’s fables to make Monstro’s first co-production The Mouse Queen, what might seem to be a story with a moral often turns out to be a lot more complex and ambiguous than that…
Our version of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale explores the way the story seems to have two, quite opposed, protagonists: there is the King, who is vain and neglectful of his subjects and has a journey to go on, as he is literally exposed and must somehow brazen it out and (we hope) take his responsibilities more seriously; then there are the Swindlers, who, on the face of it are total scoundrels – but then don’t we all love a scoundrel…? We have made the whole show into a kind of game with the audience where the two Swindlers are constantly making us question what is true and who is in charge of telling the story. There’s also an upstart puppet mouse who, to the surprise of the main characters, takes it upon herself to be the narrator of the story.
What kind of puppets do you use in the show?
As the story moves rapidly between characters and is told by two performers, the puppets need to be simple enough to be operated by a single puppeteer. To keep a variety and playfulness within that constraint, we have given different puppets different qualities in terms of their movement and construction, depending on their different characters and roles. So, for example, there is a Courtier with the title of Keeper of the Royal Trousers, whose main feature is her legs – it’s a type of glove puppet where the fingers are placed in the legs, which can then cross and uncross and flick around expressively. Another character has a muppet-like lip-synching style with a hand in the mouth, and makes use of a performer’s real hand as its hand – creating a very pleasing illusion.
The great thing about puppetry is that it is so far from the literal, that you can mix scales and styles at will, and no-one is going to say “you’re breaking the rules”. Or if they are: bring it on, I say.
How about the music and songs? Have you devised them yourselves?
Song-writing is my bread-and-butter. As well as the Puppet Musicals I’ve written with Monstro, Little Angel, Polka etc I write actual human-sized musicals and I also do a lot of song-writing teaching. So I wrote the songs, because no-one else was going to.
Tell us a bit about the performers. What skills do they bring to the stage?
Gilbert Taylor and Karina Garnett are highly skilled puppeteers but are both also wonderful improvisers and clowns, which is exactly what this particular show needed. And, of course, they can sing. And play the ukulele. It does take a very particular sort of multi-skilled performer to be able to deliver a show like this.
We reviewed director Steve Tiplady (who’s practically puppetry royalty!) at Little Angel earlier this year in his hilarious version of Pinocchio: can we expect to enjoy some of his bonkers audience engagement?
Absolutely! I’ve been working with Steve on shows for nearly 20 years now and have been very much influenced by his sense of humour, inventive approaches and total lack of shame!
Steve was very much in mind when I first had the idea for this show: I remember telling him: “imagine a puppet version of The Emperor’s New Clothes, with NO puppets! Instead, the swindler-performers keep telling the audience there are puppets and the audience believes them!” I knew he would share my enthusiasm for this preposterous idea and it’s been a delight to go on this journey with him. (Spoiler alert: there ARE actual puppets in the show, but we have gone to town on playing with this idea of the Performers-as-Swindlers-Fooling-the Audience….as you will see when you come to the show!)
The King of Nothing is targeted at ages 5-11, but you’re known for productions with very universal appeal, enjoyable both for children and their adults as well: is this going to be a fun day out for the whole family?
Is the Pope a Catholic? Is there dog poo on the streets of London? Of course it’s going to be a fun day out for the whole family! Monstro Theatre’s whole philosophy is about making shows that appeal regardless of age. Making shows that work for children requires a discipline in story-telling that a lot of grown-up shows could do well to learn. And once you know how to tell a story with humour and energy and keep the kids engaged, the world is your oyster: you can pack in all the wit and sophistication and thoughtfulness you want.
Some of it will go over the kids’ heads, but the great thing to me is: we can’t really know what they will understand or not understand or question or think about in the future. We have all forgotten what it is to be a child and what thrills me is to put a piece of work in front of a young audience and let their wild imaginations transform it in ways we can never fathom. Sure there’s a 5-11 tag on the show, but to me theatre is social and to be enjoyed in the most inter-generational and multi-layered spirit.
Thanks so much to Ben Glasstone for taking the time to chat with us. You can enjoy The King of Nothing at the Little Angel Theatre from 24 September until 20 November 2022.
Further information and tickets can be found here.