The Puppet Museum in Albaida

about and you’ve got an hour to kill. There is not enough time to go back home and put your feet up, as you know you have to soon get back up again. Yet an hour is too long to idle away doing nothing in particular when you are in a Spanish town, its raining and all the shops are shut for siesta and barely a soul is to be seen.

So while my eleven year old was being coerced into learning Spanish by her formidable teacher Gracia, I decided to visit the greatest tourist attraction of Albaida, its puppet museum. Perched next to the Town Hall and other "muy importante" buildings, the museum is an impressive construction with origins in Moorish architectural design. An unknowing passerby would never guess its function as it is not obviously advertised or signposted, but like me, would no doubt be lured by its imposing archway leading into a cobbled courtyard where its true identity is revealed.

When I stepped through an open door at the back of the building, a young espanol who was sitting behind a desk suddenly sprang to life. I don’t think his day had been particularly busy and he seemed pleased to receive a fellow human being into his enclave, even if it was in the form of a bored English woman with an imperfect grasp of Spanish. He charged me three euros, asked me where I was from and where I lived in Spain, all of which I understood perfectly well, and thus duping him into thinking I was a fluent speaker. He continued to gabble away at 90 miles an hour, while I stood meekly nodding answering “si”, “si” and “si” again.

He led me into a small auditorium and cranked up a projector. No sign of a puppet yet and I felt a bit of a Charlie being the only member of the audience. He asked me if I wanted to watch the film in Spanish or English. Um, I think English would be good, thanks. He left me to it and I watched a charming homemade film about my adopted town and its puppet museum. It showed local children operating puppets for shows in preparation for the many local fiestas. It showed a variety of puppets with big grotesque heads to re-enact stories, such as the popular retelling of the Moors versus Christians.

The film then showed real local professional puppeteers performing and it was extraordinary to watch them almost become their puppets mimicking their pain or ecstasy with their bodies, faces and voices. Hang on a minute, how can you mimic a puppet? The puppet and their master actually become one and as a result the puppets when animated are scarily real. This was sophisticated puppetry that I had never seen before that dealt with the deepest of human emotions. Extraordinary.

The history of puppets, the film continued to tell me, is rooted in the Italian Comedia del Arte tradition and their popularity spread throughout Europe from the sixteenth century onwards due to travelling puppeteers. I learned that our own matricidal Mr. Punch was a derivation of an original Italian character, but with his new-found Englishness became a more sinister being, killing both his wife and son, and always managing to escape the law.

So that’s where Eastenders got their inspiration for its characters.

After the show I came face to face with Mr. Punch, who is now living in a glass case marked England, with his other compadres. All puppets are cased according to country of origin, such as Spain, England and France. France has its own sinister Mort puppet, a nasty looking skeleton representing death. The traveling puppeteers of the nineteenth century must have been a dark bunch. My favourites were from the Canary Islands whose costumes were of such beauty and intricacy, they lost all their scariness. All the puppets were quite big and imposing in stature. Not life-size, but big enough to do some real damage should they suddenly come alive and break out of their cases.

I was quite relieved to see my new Spanish friend appear to inform me that the puppets from popular 80s series “Fraggle Rock” lived upstairs. I went to meet them and was duly reminded by numerous film posters plastered all over the walls of their home of the importance of puppets in celluloid history. “King Kong”, "The Never Ending Story”, “The Return of Oz” and of course, The Muppets to name a few famous films using puppets. I felt that when I left the museum that puppets have made rather an important cultural contribution over the years and still do today, where modern technology has enhanced their potential to entertain. I would never trust one though…

by Rachael Loxston

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