Where humans fail on the world stage, send in puppets

“When the wings of your stage are Turkey and the UK, there’s a very big stage to cover,” Amir Nizar tells Sky News, pawing over a map showing the 5,000 mile journey he is about to embark on with his band of puppeteers.

The creators of War Horse and The Jungle hope their latest puppet Amal, a nine-year-old refugee girl – who this weekend flies to the Turkish-Syria border to make the treacherous journey back across Europe – will capture hearts and imaginations in the places she visits along that treacherous route.

It’s a journey made by 6,200 refugee children in the first half of last year and 2,300 of them were alone, separated from their families, according to UNICEF figures.

Amal is a puppet - a 9yo refugee girl. Pic: Bevan Roos
Image: War Horse proved the power and poignancy of puppetry, but the scale and ambition of this project feels unique. Pic: Bevan Roos

“They are transparent… a lot of these children go unnoticed,” playwright and artistic director Nizar said. “Amal, being 3.5 metres tall, she’s not going to go unnoticed.”

“We are walking to honour and pay tribute to a journey that was made by hundreds of thousands of people and how you make this journey in a complex and honest way is the artistic challenge,” he added.

War Horse proved the power and poignancy of puppetry, but the scale and ambition of this project feels unique, and the affection is palpable at their last London rehearsal before flying out this weekend.

Puppeteer Rachel Leonard is emotional talking about her relationship with the puppet and is sure she will probably cry every day of the journey over the next four months. It’s a hard and emotional project and that’s the point.

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Amal is a puppet - a nine-year-old refugee. Pic: Amy Hitchcock
Image: Amal is a very personal project for the team, many of whom have experienced what it is like to be displaced. Pic: Amy Hitchcock

“When you start working with a puppet you really do start falling in love with that puppet,” she told Sky News.

“There is a huge love for this girl… that’s how everyone seems to feel about her, this little girl, we’re all under her spell.”

It is hoped Amal’s magic might help change minds.

Puppeteer Girum Bekele is not immune to the emotion and is excited about going on the road with the creation.

He said: “Little Amal from Syria, I’m 100% sure she is going to change the world, so many people look after her including me and I want to feel her fear, her worry, I’m going to walk with her every step.”

Nizar added: “By focussing on one little imaginary kid, because she’s not real, she’s an act of theatre, by honing in on this one specific story you might start to understand the whole issue from a unique perspective.”

Amal is a puppet - a 9yo refugee girl. Pic: Bevan Roos
Image: The creators of War Horse and The Jungle hope Amal will capture hearts and imagination. Pic: Bevan Roos

It is a very personal project for the team, many of whom have experienced what it is like to be displaced.

Nizar said: “I grew up in Palestine, a child of a Jewish mother and Palestinian father, so the ethos of being a refugee runs very deep in both the sides of my family… as a theatre practitioner working in refugee camps…. this issue is very close to me.

“Usually when we think of the refugee issue you automatically go ‘oh it’s about misery and poor people struggling’ but it’s also about resilience and pride, it’s about courage, cultures and celebrating their potential.

“It’s important it’s not about misery, it’s about creating beauty in these places this nine-year-old girl visits.”

Amal is a puppet - a 9yo refugee girl. Pic: Bevan Roos
Image: Amal is 3.5m tall so, unlike many real refugee children, she will not go unnoticed. Pic: Bevan Roos

Amal – meaning hope – is based on a girl in the play The Jungle, which Good Life wrote for the Young Vic and later Broadway after becoming known for setting up a temporary theatre in a Calais refugee camp. Hamstring Puppet Company – of War Horse fame – came on board to create the puppet.

Anyone who has seen shows such as War Horse or Circus 1903, will understand how the gap you must fill in when watching a puppet somehow inspires a unique empathy.

When you recognise a movement, such a breath, and the moment of recognition for life, no other art quite compares.

Nizar said: “If the community is invested they become empathetic they rethink their attitude or position this is the beauty of theatre it makes you think about yourself through someone else’s eyes – if we manage to do this in some of the places it will be worth walking.”

Leonard added: “It’s easy to feel care and love and generosity to this puppet, but it reminds us to feel care and love to real people. I just hope she’ll be a little reminder to us all, ‘Oh my goodness, yeah what about the real ones?'”

The Walk starts in Turkey on 27 July, travelling through countries including Greece, Italy, Germany France and ending when Amal arrives in Manchester on 3 November.

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