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Next (1989)

Courtesy of Channel Four Television

Main image of Next (1989)
For Lip-Synch, Channel 4, tx. 28/11/1990, 5 mins, colour
DirectorBarry Purves
Production CompanyAardman Animations
ProducerSara Mullock
ScriptBarry Purves
PhotographyDave Alex Riddett, David Sproxton, Andy MacCormack

Voices: Barry Purves, Roger Rees

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William Shakespeare performs an audition piece consisting of extracts from all his plays.

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Commissioned by Channel Four for its Lip-Synch series (alongside Nick Park's now-classic Creature Comforts, 1989), Barry Purves' Next is a virtuoso piece of puppet animation based around the notion of struggling actor Will (i.e. William Shakespeare) being asked to perform an audition piece for theatre director Peter (clearly modelled on Sir Peter Hall).

The piece in question is a highly symbolic pageant (the film is subtitled 'The Infinite Variety Show') into which references to all 37 of Shakespeare's plays have been woven. Julius Caesar is stabbed, Bottom dons an ass's head, Malvolio dances in cross-gartered yellow stockings, while Titus Andronicus (curiously clad in a black Dracula cape) prepares a pie out of severed limbs). Pantomime and cardboard animals abound: there's the bear from the famous Winter's Tale stage direction, Crab the incontinent dog from The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the horse that drags Hector to his death (in Troilus and Cressida). And are the two balloon-headed creatures emerging from a wicker basked before being gorily popped into oblivion meant to be the Princes in the Tower (Richard III)?

The stage effects are deliberately and even crudely theatrical - blood is represented by trailing red ribbons, Ophelia drowns herself by falling through a blue cloth concealing a trapdoor (the same cloth is later pressed into service as a tempest-tossed sea), while the illusion of the twins in The Comedy of Errors is created with a well-placed mirror. Although it's unlikely that such a complex performance could actually take place in a live situation, Purves makes it almost plausible, and the moment when a severed head flies into the stalls, narrowly missing the director, highlights one of the pleasures of live performance that film cannot match.

What makes Next so fascinating to watch, besides its high level of visual and conceptual wit and the constant guessing-games it forces its audience to play (none of the plays are explicitly identified, and some symbols are more obvious than others), is the way it uses the puppet medium as a commentary on its own artifice. The end result is a film that uses state-of-the-art 20th-century technology to pay heartfelt tribute to the performing arts of the past. Similarly, Stuart Gordon's music, although obviously electronic in origin, is a well-crafted tribute to the sound of the Elizabethan theatre.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
Aardman Animations
Channel 4 and Animation
Shakespeare on Screen