28 January 2012
As Improbable as Mr Punch...
Backstage last night at the Sidney Meyer Music Bowl in Melbourne, where we were performing our Australian Survival Day production, I was chatting to a traditional Commedia del Arte 'Arlequino' about the disappearance of Punch and Judy from our lives and today I discover one of the British theatre heroes of our time, Julian Crouch, is giving a new voice to the villainous archetype.
Think of Mr Punch and you tend to conjure up a vision of traditional seaside entertainment and children’s birthday parties. Comedy crocodiles and strings of felt sausages project a rather quaint – some might say cute – picture-postcard image on the mind’s eye. However, that would be to ignore the large thwacking stick with which Punch wallops his wife and antagonises the local constabulary. In fact, the figure of Mr Punch, who celebrates his 350th anniversary in Covent Garden, London in May, has a far darker side that is all too easily forgotten.
‘I don’t find him cute at all,’ says Crouch, one of the artistic directors of Improbable Theatre, whose latest theatre piece for the company, The Devil and Mister Punch, comes to the Barbican Centre’s Pit Theatre. ‘He tends to be pretty violent, actually. I own a couple of Punch masks and when you put them on, you start to feel quite aggressive.’
Witness a tragic comedy of manslaughter and love. It's Punch and Judy but as presented by Messrs Harvey and Hovey, a pair of broken vaudevillians who are now in the gutter and have been reduced to presenting a puppet show that goes wildly off-course.
Featuring a lush score of bass fiddle, gin parlour piano, metronome and bells, this dark but hilarious show is performed on a gloriously theatrical wood-panelled set. Inside this shadowy world live a steaming crocodile, a parade of piggies, the devil and many other extraordinary characters.
Crouch is fascinated by the ‘nostalgia of theatre’. By returning to an old- fashioned theme, The Devil and Mister Punch bucks the trend of contemporary puppetry, much of which currently aims to break ties with its childish, simplistic connotations. ‘The glove puppet is perceived as probably the lowliest of all theatrical forms. It’s seen as a gutter art, but it can totally surprise you. It comes in under the radar.
It is something that says: “Look, I’m just a glove puppet. Nothing I say is important.” But of course, it absolutely is. It may be the gutter, but you can see the moon reflected in the water. There’s something heavenly about the gutter.’
Equally, there’s something adult about this staple figure of childhood entertainment. Mr Punch is not merely a kid’s plaything – as his encounter with the devil and Julian Crouch is bound to show.
Improbable’s innovative work ranges from small scale theatre, such as Panic at the Barbican in 2009, to large opera productions, including Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, co-produced with ENO and a sell-out hit in London and at The Metropolitan Opera, New York. Don't miss The Devil and Mister Punch which opens at The Barbican Theatre on 2nd February 2012.