Suter Theatre, Nelson

26/08/2014 - 26/08/2014

NASDA Theatre, E Block, CPIT, Christchurch

09/10/2013 - 13/10/2013

Globe Theatre, 104 London St, Dunedin

20/03/2013 - 23/03/2013

Meteor Theatre, 1 Victoria Street, Hamilton

26/09/2013 - 28/09/2013

The Body Festival 2013

Dunedin Fringe 2013

Hamilton Fringe 2013

Production Details

Tablo, The Notional Theatre Company of NZ, returns to the Dunedin Fringe, to the Globe Theatre on March 20-23, to premiere their latest production, In Absentia.

Following the 4-night sell-out success of their last show, It’ll End In Tears, in Christchurch’s 2012 Body Festival, this new work is a mesmerising study of the impact of Alzheimer’s disease.

Ironically, the reality of the illness is highlighted and brought into unique focus through the unreal world of Tablo’s exquisitely crafted puppetry. Time becomes fluid and memories shape-shift as a son and his mother traverse the broken, bewildering, and ultimately revelatory, landscape of her illness.

In Absentia is at once both intimate and universal, tragic and surreally humorous, swinging from moments of heart rending tenderness to scenes of cleverly outrageous stagecraft. This is not children’s puppetry but dramatic, subtly nuanced performance along the lines of contemporary European and North American puppet theatre.

Not surprising given Tablo’s two Creative Directors and Performers, Simon van der Sluijs and John Cohen-Du Four, originally hail from The Netherlands and the United States.

The Christchurch-based Company has been busy since its formation in 2009, producing three different stage shows, a number of short films, workshops and Canterbury University lectures – as well as performing puppetry street theatre in NZ, including the 2011 Dunedin Fringe, and abroad at the Adelaide Fringe, Edinburgh Fringe, Bristol International Puppetry Festival, and Street Theatre Festival in Aurillac, France.

In Absentia promises to be moving and thought-provoking, and in typical Tablo fashion, deeply unforgettable.


“The sheer creativity … is both startling and enchanting. Alzheimer’s and senile dementia might seem less than appealing themes to employ for a piece of theatrical beauty … I can only hope my own passing is so sublime.” (Jonathan W. Marshall, Theatreview)

Following their sell-out performances in last year’s Body Festival, Christchurch puppetry theatre company Tablo are back again, this year presenting a hauntingly evocative new work, In Absentia. At once both intimate and universal, tragic and surreally outrageous, the show uses life-size puppets and an array of beguiling staging devices to present a mesmerizing glimpse into the world of dementia, through a mother and son’s journey.

In Absentia premiered in this year’s Dunedin Fringe Festival, where it was nominated for Best Theatre, Best Production Design and Best of Fringe, and won Best Production Design for being, in the words of the judging panel: “…a work by master puppeteers.

Company Tablo – The Notional Theatre Company of NZ 
Venue NASDA Studio at CPIT, E Block, Madras Street 
Date/Time Wed 9th – Sun 13th October at 8.00pm 
Matinee performance Sun 13th at 2.00pm 
Duration 55 mins 
Cost $20, $16 concessions from Dash Tickets, or phone 0800 327 484, booking fees apply


This is not children’s puppetry but dramatic, subtly nuanced performance along the lines of contemporary European and North American puppet theatre.

Tablo’s two Creative Directors and Performers, Simon van der Sluijs and John Cohen-Du Four, originally hail from The Netherlands and the United States.

In Absentia premiered at the Dunedin Fringe Festival, where it was nominated for Best Theatre, Best Production Design and Best of Fringe, and won Best Production Design for being, in the words of the judging panel: “…a work by master puppeteers.” 

The Suter Theatre, 208 Bridge St, Nelson 
Tue 26 August & Sat 27 September 2014
Adult: $29.90 | Concession: $25.00
BOOK: 03 548 4699  (Additional fees may apply)

Assistant Director:  Sue Beesley
Character Voice Talent:  Sue Beesley, Tim McInnes
Soundtrack Engineer:  Sean James
Theatre Technician:  Alexandra Ross
Front of House:  Dunedin Fringe 

Deeply affecting

Review by Gail Tresidder 27th Aug 2014

“Mum, where the hell are you?” asks her son, which, in the circumstances, is quite a question, as his mother wanders in and out of her memories.  We care, we go with her, as her late husband comes to life and they dance their wedding waltz and then, pop, back in to the photo he goes.  Her fumbling to make the bed is heart-wrenching, as is her obsession with an imaginary spot on her nightgown. 

In her room, and in her ramblings, old loved objects take on a life of their own.  Flashbacks combine with a clever use of back projection, light box and slides.  There is a marvellously over-the-top high catholic gismo, with lit candles, featuring the omnipotent eye of God.  Excellent sound combines with impeccable timing by the two puppeteers: Simon van der Sluijs and John Cohen-Du Four.  It is all stunning.

Some of the issues with advanced Alzheimer’s and senile dementia are absent: no nappies in sight, thankfully.  Still, what comes through loud and clear is an understanding of how terrible it would be to suffer the loss of all that makes us individual.  It could have been a tearful experience.  Instead, it offers a time to reflect, to empathise, to feel.

Vander Sluijs and Cohen-DuFour are light on their feet and a great team, present only by their ‘absence’ (all in black).  The puppets are works of art.  Our no-name old woman with her straggly hair, sad vacant eyes, hesitant walk and aura of absolute confusion, is so life-like, so touching. Her wearing of rabbit-ears, a regression to childhood, remains an indelible image. 

Recalling a lost love in her poem, ‘Remember’, Christina Georgina Rosetti wrote “Remember me when I am gone away, gone far away into the silent land …”  Struggling with the bewilderment of dementia is a frightening thing, both for the afflicted and for those who love and care for them.  Gradually they disappear, go far away.  In a poignant final moment, this old woman, this puppet who by now has taken on a lifelike and human persona, says, very quietly, to the empty stage of her life and to a deeply affected audience, “I will remember, remember me”.


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Elegant and eloquent

Review by Elizabeth O’Connor 10th Oct 2013

An elderly woman moves slowly towards death, decrepit and confused, with her occasional consciousness inhabited by the voice and light of her son’s presence.  Her puppet body, night-gown clad, with stringy hair and a haunted visage, is superbly animated by a black-clad puppeteer, as she interacts with memory and various manifestations of her son, her religion and her life.

Simon van der Sluijs and John Cohen-Du Four created their puppetry and mask company, Tablo, four years ago.  Their work exhibits compassion and finesse.  In this particular production, time moved slowly (representing the slowly changing experience of the protagonist).  The pop-up props of the boy etc. were impressive in execution but did not advance the pace of the event nor really enrich the experience for me.

I was most fascinated by the woman herself.  The point where her manipulator was “unmasked”, so to speak, was poignant and I feel as though there could have been – perhaps inept – interrogation.

A full house attended this opening at The Body Festival, and this elegant and eloquent piece deserves a full season.


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Review by Gail Pittaway 30th Sep 2013

Specialists in puppet theatre, particularly large figure puppetry, Christchurch-based Tablo Theater brings to life the mind of an old woman who suffers from dementia, with extraordinary imagery and powerful invention. 

Bewildered, encountering fugue memory moments and reliving old passions and crises, the old woman moves around her darkened space and receives the visions that come at her in random force. There is no sense of time in this production; it is still, with simple voices and statements over the achingly slow action. The pace arises from the confusion of her mind and the episodes or tableaux of recollection that appear.

The production uses a brilliant array of visual devices to convey the moments in the past life of the old woman: her wedding day, conceiving her son, her son’s growing bitterness and frustration, and the constant motif of her religious faith which is Roman Catholic. Several tableaux are repeated, such as a portable shrine with an automaton consisting of a head with four hands, which sings small songs of praise to Mary and Jesus, each time asking to see, hear, feel and commit no evil.

There’s a lovemaking scene, animated from an old photograph, running on a mirror, and later a short film of her son’s life played out on a leather suitcase lid. There are several figures of her son – as a fairground freak roly-poly figure, throwing bits of bun at the audience, then as a small marionette, leaving home, and as a large figure puppet, like his mother, but rejecting the faith that she had forced on him, in a brilliant swipe of the hand, removing the cross sign from his forehead.  The other superb moment of image making is when the large wooden cross in pride of place on the wall, moves towards then suddenly embraces the old lady.

But the images are not all dark. There is a gorgeous pet dog, which develops out of a coffee table with a bunch of flowers and vase, a beautiful dance sequence when the man in the wedding photo comes out from the picture and they dance together. The old woman puppet is thin and vulnerable, with thinning straggly hair and tragic eyes.  She is constantly touching her hair and face with her soft white hands which are poignantly arthritic. The artistry of the puppeteers, two black clad men, Simon van der Slujis and John Cohen-du Four, is impeccable and they have choreographed their sequences and transitions beautifully, so that the audience flicks in and out of recognition of their craft, like a tricky Gestalt painting of old woman / young maiden.

In one vignette the old woman lifts the veil on one of the puppeteers and encounters her creator. It’s a touching yet creepy moment; we felt so much more comfortable pretending it was an act, through a glass darkly; now we see art, dementia, old age, face to face, as St Paul said to the Corinthians.

This show may be about dementia and memory loss but it is unforgettable.


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Emotional density and aesthetic pleasures

Review by Jonathan W. Marshall 21st Mar 2013

In Absentia is an exceptional piece of object / puppet theatre from Tablo Theatre, Christchurch. Composed out of a series of vignettes or images, the work gently shifts from one frame of quiet, wry contemplation, to another.

A narrative is sketched, themes and dramas alluded to, but the piece largely depends on gliding from one creative tableau to the next and simply resting on it. One could, in this sense, describe the piece as a low-fi, domestic version of what Robert Wilson does in his epic works of theatre spectacle. 

The protagonist is an elderly woman, represented by a large puppet supported by one performer in black-theatre garb. A second masked, black-clad performer also glides about the space, animating other objects and marionettes, as our dreamer brings them to mind, or as she directly interacts with them. 

The sheer creativity of the images and models which Tablo produces is both startling and enchanting. Some are highly complex constructions, such as a box adorned by religious icons (a tabernacle, which, strictly speaking, is slightly at odds with the Catholic framing with which most of the religious references are imbued) from out of which rises a clockwork talking head of a child (Baby Jesus, as in such famous icons as the Infant of Prague), with four hands to cover its eyes and mouth (see no, hear no, speak no evil) or to hold them wide to embrace the world. Other animations are wondrous in their simplicity, such as the soft cross which flies from the wall and embraces our protagonist. 

Short, epigraphic text is delivered via the sound system. Although I wondered if the puppets really needed to mime to this, it does help impart a vaguely sing-song, dark yet naïve simplicity to the work. The clacking of the marionettes’ mouths also reinforces that clunky, material nature of these beings, a point to which I shall return below. 

It is an oft-repeated lesson that people apparently are comfortable with human-like machines and objects up to a certain point, but if an automaton becomes so similar to a human as to be at all confusing in its status, then fear, loathing and discomfort is a more frequent response to the humanoid.

The act of likening people and animals to inanimate objects (the piece features a lovely table transformed into a dog) can be disturbing to many.  Here, though, the comparison is extremely apt. The aging individual, limbs beginning to creak and memory failing, can begin to lose his or her sense of him or herself as a person. The decrepit can readily phase into a state which is evocative of clocks running down, insects scattering about, muscles twitching in reactive cycles, and so on.  

This is not the sole domain of the elderly. All of us as people are nothing more than flesh, bone, and various kinds of processing and animate matter. 

The show ends deliberately tautologically, with the protagonist returning to her bed, and reciting: “I remember… I … I remember … Me! … I remember… me. Remember… Me.” As the audience gazes about the stage recently animated through her fantastic recollections – of her son (a rolling ball of a puppet which throws cakes at the audience), her husband (who literally comes down from a picture on the wall to dance with her), her dog, and her own mind (a silhouette showing a filigree egg rising from out of her head, and which is pieced with small doors of light which open and close as voices call and the sound of steps on the staircases echoes deep within) – one gets the impression that it is the theatrical stage of her house, her home, her objects, which have been remembering her, and not the other way around. 

The closing line is therefore as much a question as it is a statement; as much a plea as it is a conclusion. She asks us to remember for her, since despite all of the wondrous things she has shown us, she cannot continue to hold them in her failing, mortal head. There is also the question of whether ‘she’ really remembers at all, for to remember, is to remember who you are. With no memory, one is not oneself; she is not the ‘me’ whom she claims to be. 

In the most moving section of the piece, the woman stops, recognises the black clad figure who holds one of her arms, and draws him down to kneel before her. Clumsily the puppet hand raises his veil, and the marionette itself stares into the eyes of the one who is making it live. 

It is an extraordinary moment: a Brechtian act of foregrounding the theatre as a theatre par excellence, which also has more than a touch of Expressionist Existentialism about it. Indeed, the physiognomy of the puppets could have been drawn from the art of German Expressionism and the doomed philosophising of the likes of Egon Schiele and Ernst Kirchner. We are all nothing more than dead, limited things or puppets in light of our brief, insignificant existence within an infinite totality of time and things. Here, then, the puppet faces her own existence as a puppet. 

The audience cannot therefore look at the stage in the same way again. It has become a hard, material place; a realm of tawdry shows and shadow-play, which we and the performers – puppets included – try to will or imagine into something greater and more beautiful. That any of us succeed is the miracle of the show. 

This interpretation is amended slightly when the voiceover explains that the woman once “saw God”, the great puppet-master Himself, as everyone from Shakespeare (King Lear) to Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) has characterised him. Even so, the sensation lingers, and it is partly this fluidity of meaning, a layering of the dark with the creative and the beautiful, that makes this such a strong piece. 

Alzheimer’s and senile dementia might seem less than appealing themes to employ for a piece of theatrical beauty. However, In Absentia is a call for the power of creativity to transform dead matter into something rich, vibrant and full of mnemonic significance (real or not) which might at least ameliorate, if not vanquish, such an undignified demise. Even the mad old woman can appreciate the emotional density and aesthetic pleasures of life through the powers of her imagination. I can only hope my own passing is so sublime. 


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