Theatre Critic and Journalist

Drawing Power: When Cartoons and Theatre Meet

Drawing Power: When Cartoons and Theatre Meet

Published in the Guardian Theatre Blog, 21.12.2009

Spare a thought for Roobarb and Custard. What hope for them in this post-Avatar world? Ever since Buzz Lightyear spread his wings for infinity and beyond almost 15 years ago, we’ve been marvelling at increasingly lifelike animation in films and on TV. But it seems that certain theatremakers are heading in the opposite direction. In the same month that James Cameron took CGI characters into three dimensions, the National is staging what is perhaps its most explicitly cartoonish production ever: Katie Mitchell’s adaptation of The Cat In the Hat.

Mitchell and her designer Vicki Mortimer have gone to great lengths to recreate Dr Seuss’s original illustrations. Mortimer does more than just confine herself to Seuss’s trademark colour scheme of black, white, red and blue. Look closely and you’ll see emboldened outlines between blocks of colour and artificial creases painted on material. There are also patches of black and white to allude to Seuss’s rendering of light. The aim is to replicate the imagery as it exists on the page, simultaneously bringing the drawing to life and flattening the action into two dimensions.

Cartoonish is a word that crops up regularly in reviews, particularly with reference to physical theatre and clowning. Shows such as Improbable’s Shockheaded Peter, Footsbarn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Gecko’s The Overcoat felt unreal, even surreal. What they share with cartoons is the ability to twist natural laws and stretch the boundaries of possibility, even if they don’t aim for the same aesthetic. Live action films, too, can be cartoonish – just look at Home Alone or The Dark Knight.

Cartoon theatre is not merely a matter of transposing the imagery of a cartoon into three dimensions. Disneyland’s mascot costumes and the staging of Spongebob Squarepants or Angelina Ballerina do that already. In the theatre, it’s the content of the cartoon that comes to life, not just the aesthetic.

Mitchell is not alone in attempting to replicate the true essence of cartoons on stage. 1927’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea merged live action with animation to create the stop-motion feel of a Victorian zoetrope. In 2007, Phelim McDermott staged the Telegraph‘s much-loved daily cartoon, Alex, using a mixture of projected line-drawings and material form. The standup comedian Howard Read works as a double act with an animated partner, Little Howard.

Elsewhere, too, theatremakers are turning away from screens. One could point to Tinned Fingers, whose array of cardboard cutouts conjure a series of flat-pack adventures in When You Cry in Space Your Tears Go Everywhere, or to the wide-eyed puppets of Green Ginger that appear in separate panels like a live-action comic strip. Meanwhile, Paper Cinema and Matthew Robins, the creator of Flyboy, have made the animation process itself into a live event.

While all of the above employ different techniques, one thing they share is honesty. After all, while animation can convincingly mimic real life, it’s much harder to pass off reality as a cartoon. The genre, therefore, contains its own failure; more than that, it acknowledges its limits and relishes its shortcomings. In doing so, it gives its audience an active role – not just to watch, but to participate in the transformative process – and therein lies its value. Perhaps we can expect a Roobarb and Custard reunion tour after all.

Photograph: Tristram Kenton

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