Friday, 14 December 2012

That's Not The Way To Do It

If I want to think about the development of puppetry in the UK, I am going to have to face him eventually.

In America, they got Stagger Lee. The Germans have Mack the Knife. The British have a hunch-back wielding a literal slapstick.

He still lurks about the seaside, I've heard, like an elderly predator no longer virile enough to bait the devil but scaring the occasional child. Bob Dylan and Nick Cave sing of Stagger Lee but our boy gets mocked in novels by Terry Pratchett. He shares an ancestry back to the commedia dell'arte with the mime, although his voice is distorted by the swazzle. He provided the break-out for that one out of Frisky and Mannish to show his serious acting chops at the Edinburgh Fringe 2012.

Mr Punch is a strangely banal representation of evil: contemporary attempts to rebrand him come and go, but he's still the size of a glove puppet and best known for being a tawdry attraction on the beach. Stagger Lee somehow got mixed up with the fight for racial equality in the States: the best Punch got was Benny Hill using him for some 1980s' political satire. And while it can't be the proudest entry on his CV, he has become the natural metaphor for under-inspired pop stars wanting to make a Grand Statement about domestic violence.

The appearance of Mr Punch in England has been dated back as far as Pepys Diary: between eying up the serving girls in church, he caught "an Italian puppet play... which is very pretty, the best that ever I saw, and great resort of gallants." Not quite being sure what that last word means, I'll assume that back then, it was quite the thing for hipsters to hang out with the mannequins.

Maybe it is merely a question of time breeding familiarity, but both of the British traditions that emerged from the commedia - panto and Punch - have ended up as primarily for kids. But while one seems to have dominated the theatre during December, the other has been quietly relegated to a curio. Mr Punch was always going to be too hardcore.

His basic story is good and rough: he beats up his wife, but lest we are to think that he is merely a misogynist, he has a crack at the beadle, a kind of early version of a copper. The animal kingdom gets it next - the crocodile usually gets a few licks in, though, leaving Punch needing a doctor. 

Inevitably, he kicks shit out of the doctor. And in the best versions, it ends with the devil turning up for an ass-kicking. 

It's the initial domestic violence that is the real problem. While I'm not one for universals, I think that a man with a big nose going toe-to-toe with a crocodile is always funny and when Punch gives the devil some, it's a moment of wonderful human triumph. But he didn't need to kill his wife: she was only annoyed because he'd dropped the baby into a sausage-maker.

I suppose political correctness could be blamed for Punch's demise. Then again, if political correctness is about preventing positive portrayals of wife-beaters, I am going to get all PC. 

What used to be knockabout fun has, instead, become a problematic tradition, exploited to great effect by modern theatre-makers. Most recently, Matthew Jones had a break from being "too cabaret" to star in Steven Bloomer's taut two-hander, Punch. Jones' central performance, and a script that veered between realism and absurdity, brought home the problems of Punch, setting him up both as shock stand up and a symbol of comedy's vicious intentions.

Punch becomes both the eternal bad boy and the defender of freedom of speech. The play does skip over his attitudes to his wife (his claim that she ran off is never contested, although the police are checking under his floorboards), allowing his routine and justifications not to be undermined by his innate savagery. This contemporary Punch had obviously taken advantage of Twitter to offend as many people as necessary and, like Frankie Boyle, he sees his nasty wit as a corrective to the bland, pandering comedy that ends up on BBC3.

His child, who ends up in the toilets at a comedy club, obviously needs to be protected from Punch. The finale does prove that he is bestial. Yet Jones makes him sympathetic and when Punch insists that his dark poetry is necessary, that argument is not wholly destroyed by his subsequent rampage.

In the meantime, shove him in the corner. He's just a nostalgic act for the kiddies. No need to worry about whether there's a serious point there. 

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