“Rebetiko”, music and image to express exile and nostalgia

Scheduled for November 18 at the Théâtre Halle Roublot and at the Mouffetard – Théâtre de la Marionnette in Paris from November 22 to 30, Rebetiko by the Anima Théâtre company is a puppet show and holographic projections, a jewel of precision in the imagination that conveys a tale that is both personal and universal, intimate and political. A work with strong cinematic accents that tells of nostalgia, exile, the hardness of the journey for those who flee alone.

sight and hearing

Start with a portrait. And from music. The portrait is a black and white photograph of a woman from other times, and is one of the leitmotifs of this show which manages to offer a clear and coherent dramaturgy even in absolute silence. The music is Rebetiko, a popular Greek music that has been defined as “outlaw blues”, a music with predominantly oriental influences that told the life of the slums, populated by exiles and marginalized. It is this music that acts as a soundtrack to the show, and that Nicolò Terrasi attacks from the outset.

Attention then shifts to a device that is not often seen: above a manipulation table, a one-way mirror inclined at 45° towards the spectators and, behind it, a new manipulation space in the background of which it finds a projection screen. The set certainly allows you to play “outside the castelet” – so to speak, given that if there is a castelet it’s of a truly surprising type – but above all it allows you to project images. Some may appear on screen in the background, but most are reflected in the glass creating eerily ethereal holographic effects, which are oddly suited to the mood of the show.

Where manipulation meets projection

On the “hidden” manipulation side, the puppets are shown through the glass, with a dark theater effect in which the two manipulators wear dark clothes that make them disappear, including a black veil that hides their faces. This space seems destined to represent if not the present, at least a temporality close to the present. Inside, the puppets exist between multiple planes on which the images can come to life, in front of or behind them, a rare and complex device, similar to the one used for example in De l’autre cote du citron by the company À domani amore mio . This allows for interesting depth effects, although it must undoubtedly make the puppeteers’ task more delicate. The back screen even allows you to play a small theater of shadows: the shadows then come to create an additional game plan between the image projected on the back and the puppet maneuvered in front of the screen.

On the side of visual manipulation, the puppets – which mainly represent children on the roads of exile, with all the insults one can imagine, in a temporality that is that of the past – come alive on the space of the table. The puppeteers are then sometimes in costume, and represent the adults who surround the children, or are of their family, or make encounters along their path, often unfriendly. But sometimes they also manipulate by hiding behind the table, when the child is left to his own devices.

In this complex device, the two puppeteers carry out a goldsmith’s work. They are forced to move from one scale to another, to go in and out, to compose with video or concentrate completely, remaining attentive to the tempo that intertwines with the musician. The pace is right, the handling gentle when needed, all very smooth. It must not be an easy score to play, especially since in the absence of dialogue the audience’s attention is fixed on the puppets and on the signals sent by their movements: no approximation is possible. We must therefore salute the quality of the work performed.

Image craftsmanship, visual composition jewellery

A peculiarity of the device, the puppets playing in each of these two spaces can intersect: those that are manipulated on the table in the foreground, in fact, can also reproduce “horizontal” scenes, lying down, which the public can then follow by looking at their reflection in the glass which then presents them with a holographic effect and at the same height as those “behind”. In this way, “castelet” puppets and “table” puppets can coexist in the image. Sometimes we are a bit lost between the different spaces, the shocked eye no longer knows where to rest for a brief moment, but we finally understand the conventions of staging and quickly pick up the thread of the story – and the suspension of disbelief that accompanies him.

All this expedient, in fact, could seem excessive and cumbersome, so told. This is not the case: it is forgotten more often than not, because it is not a gimmick, but a multiplier of possibilities placed entirely at the service of the story. The images – often cinematic – in black and white appear to be often, if not always, stock images, which does not exclude that they make a strong impression, such as these briskly marching soldiers’ boots which constitute a suggestive allegory of the military dictatorship. The use of the image is very rich: it can indicate a context (for example the boots), a decoration (for example the window of an apartment), a movement (for example the subjective vision of a journey on a forest path) .

Furthermore, there is also a certain craftsmanship in the creation of the images: for example, the waves of a stormy sea can be represented using a plastic film shaken by one of the puppeteers who comes to mix with the images projected onto the table. Everything is of great finesse. The diversity of the techniques used, in volume or in 2D, more or less artisanal, more or less evanescent, allows to obtain a rich and nuanced visual composition, within which the different elements marry without clashing.

From the intimate to the political, the detour through the poetic

The theme dealt with has an intimate strength that is revealed in the dramatic intensity of the images and situations. The director Yiorgos Karakantzas, also of Greek origin, delicately paints the story of this child thrown on the roads of exile, embarked on a poor tub beaten by a storm at sea. Not without having a universal and contemporary echo, when one thinks that these same routes are now taken by migrants fleeing other persecutions, other wars, other miseries. The topic, without being overtly political, invites us to see these past and present events from a sensitive point of view. In any case, the show is poignant: these young people with the look of Gavroches torn from their parents and trying to survive their journey are certainly moving.

In dealing with these questions, the puppet allows one to take a distance, both emotional and poetic. Exciting, because the viewer can hold on to the fact that this child character is, after all, just an object that comes alive, when the violence exerted against him becomes too strong, when he loses his parents, gets close to drowning, or is sold by people who had pretended to help him, or chased by ferocious canines… Poetic, because the puppet allows dreams and makes the impossible possible, because the characters can fly away, disappear in order to reappear better…

From beginning to end, Nicolo Terrasi’s accompaniment, which alternates the very bluesy accents of an overdriven electric guitar and pizzicato attacks that sound much closer to traditional music, gives a musical color to the whole. There are not many signs in the image itself that allow to tie the story to Greece – which also helps to make it universal. It is therefore, for many, the sound universe gravitating around the Rebetiko that indicates where, on the map of the world’s wars and misfortunes, this silent story could be located.

In short, Rebetiko it is a visual show with a delicate construction, which stands out for the singularity of its device, but also for the clarity of its silent dramaturgy and for the precision of the composed images – without detracting from its poetic significance, on the contrary.


Director: Yiorgos Karakantzas
Written by: Panayotis Evangelidis
Composer-musician: Nicolo Terrasi
Puppeteers: Irene Lentini and Magali Jacquot
Director: Nicolas Schintone
Construction of puppets and accessories: Demy Papada and Dimitris Stamou – Cie Merlin Puppet Theater
Lighting project: Jean-Louis Floro
Video: Shemie Reut
Construction of the Lantern: Panos Ioannidis
Soundtrack: Katerina Douka, vocals; Christos Karypidis, Oud; Tassos Tsitsivakos, Bouzouki
Costumes: Stefania Mestre
Structure construction: Sylvain Georget and Patrick Vindimian
Assistant: Mara Kyriakidou

Photo: © Hugues Cristianini

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