Commissioned by Art House Jersey to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War, Jackie the Baboon tells the extraordinary (so, of course, true) story of the mascot of the 3rd Transvaal Regiment in the First World War, a baboon called Jackie. Raised and domesticated on a South African farm, his owner Private Marr persuaded his superiors to take Jackie into war with him. The baboon wore a uniform, learned to salute and light cigarettes for his fellow soldiers, and somehow survived the French trenches (although not unscathed).
Theatre makers Brunskill & Grimes specialise in puppetry and animal perspectives (they worked on War Horse), so the species of the central character was not a problem. In just two weeks, with a cast of six (performing as both the human characters and puppeteers), they have put together an hour-long show that was caveated as a “scratch” performance (i.e. “we’re still working on it”), but was pretty slick stuff.
In the spirit of the Q&A that followed the performance, in which the company welcomed all constructive criticism as fuel for the play’s development, I would respectfully offer that it needs more work on the character and story (and, tbh, the South African accents). But as this show lives or dies on the quality of the puppet work, it’s natural for that to be the initial focus of their work.
And here’s where Jackie The Baboon will enrapture audiences, especially the schoolchildren who will see its intended tour next year. It’s extraordinary how the human eye can look at a skeletal wood-and-wire sculpture, with its operators clearly visible, and see a living baboon. How the human mind reads emotion into the slightest turn of the puppet’s head. And once you believe that, then you cannot help but be touched by this creature pawing at its injured master, or thrilled as it races through the bullets and explosions of the trenches (okay, a set of wooden bar stools being hurled around the stage, but it was the trenches, I swear…).
Huge credit also to the creators of the immersive music and sound design which integrated seamlessly with the action. Again, for just two weeks’ work this was impressive stuff.
Creating theatre from scratch can be like death by a thousand blows; a barrage of micro-decisions without quite knowing where you are going. But through skill and talent (and luck), these moments can cohere into something special – and Jackie The Baboon is clearly on the path to being a powerful and beautiful show. It’s vital that theatre is part of this Festival, and just as the author events reveal the process behind writing a book, this event was an enthralling first look at theatre in the act of creation.
Words: Andrew Davey
Picture: Peter Mourant