I am in the Barbican Pit surrounded by open plastic crates full of Punch puppets and masks. In front of me, their designer and maker, Julian Crouch, is showing me how they work. But although he is talking to me, I am not the focus of his attention. He looks fascinated as he demonstrates one puppet’s punching mechanism; staring intently at the miniature figure as if encountering it for the first time. When he pulls on a giant-sized Punch mask, I can’t help but step away from him. Something about this distorted, grinning visage makes me want to hide under my bed. Taking it off, he smiles and acknowledges: “I don’t get to play with these very often.”
These beautifully sinister creations belong to the latest show by Crouch and his award-winning performance company, Improbable. The Devil & Mister Punch is inspired by the enduringly popular puppet, whose cultural migration has taken him from sixteenth-century Italy to the British seaside. Starting life as a manifestation of misrule in Commedia dell-arte, he has travelled oceans, changed from Sicilian marionette to glove-puppet, downsized from a tent to a booth, gained a wife, lost a mistress and battled crocodiles, the law and the Devil on his way to becoming one of the iconic figures of knockabout comedy. He doesn’t follow a script, will perform anywhere and respects no one, delighting audiences by mocking them as they laugh at his slapstick and obsession with sausages.
Crouch’s devised piece, which borrows elements from throughout this long and varied history, tells the darkly surreal tale of Messrs Harvey and Hovey, a pair of jaded vaudevillians who – along with Mr Punch – are pulled into Hell and put on trial for manslaughter and crimes against creativity. Packed with the dream-like, twisted fairytale imagery that has become his trademark, Crouch says that audiences should expect “less prose, more poetry” from the story, and definitely less Judy. “She wasn’t there at the start of the Punch shows and I don’t want parents thinking they can leave their kids here and go shopping.”
Crouch’s earlier admission over a coffee in the Barbican cafe, that “when I was a kid the first thing I ever made was a Punch head,” is reflected in his evident enjoyment of puppets as an adult. But he stresses that the opening of the show in the same year as Mr Punch’s 350th ‘birthday’ (Punch’s first recorded appearance in Britain is a delighted diary entry by Samuel Pepys in May 1662 about an “Italian puppet play”) is coincidence rather than design. “The reality of these things is that you get to a point as a company where you have to decide what you’re going to do several years in advance, to get your funding.”
Mr Punch first entered Crouch’s professional life several years ago, when a film about the cackling glove puppet was on the cards. But this “fizzled away like a lot of projects do.” It wasn’t until the Barbican approached Improbable looking for a show that would have local appeal that The Devil and Mister Punch began to take shape in his head. “I pointed out to them that within a square mile of here in the eighteenth century there were something like 25 puppet shows.” He also welcomed the opportunity to return to the hands-on, intimate and experimental style of theatre-making that had motivated him to set up Improbable in the first place, frustrated by the conservatism of the UK repertory circuit.
After the transatlantic success of the company’s 70 Hill Lane and Culture Industry-produced musical Shockheaded Peter, which mixed life-sized puppets and performers in a tale based on a popular German children’s book, America came calling. Soon, he and Improbable co-founder Phelim McDermott found themselves among the bright lights of Broadway, designing and directing a multimillion-dollar stage adaptation of kooky Sixties TV series The Addams Family.
Crouch now lives in the USA but it is doubtful that he was won over to the American way of life by his experience of working on the Nathan Lane-starring musical, which opened in 2009 to such mixed reviews that Tony Award-winning director Jerry Zaks was drafted in to rework the production. Looking back, Crouch describes this time as one “dominated by a fear of failure. On Broadway, it’s about money and people make it very clear to you that their personal fortunes depend on what you deliver. Their fear means that they clamp down, which isn’t the best way for creativity to flourish.”
Crouch also found the prescriptive and over-determined nature of such a huge production artistically deadening. “Because what happens, as a designer, is that when you get these bigger projects, you have to start delegating,” he explains. “For me, making something feels like a spiritual process; I like not knowing what’s going to happen. But that just wasn’t possible there. I had to design and draw everything and tell other people exactly what I wanted made.”
His response to this and to the addition of another director was to become “very quiet in the process” and to crave ever more strongly something more immediate and personal. “I wanted to be back in a room where I could play again, without having to know what I was doing, and to work with people who were my friends.” His way of “keeping sane” during this period was to go home and make puppet heads. “I kind of knew that I was making Punch and the Crocodile but I didn’t know what I was making them for,” he recalls. And so The Devil & Mister Punch – which, fittingly, had a dry-run in Crouch’s living room – was conceived.
The way in which Crouch discusses designing and making puppets shares similarities with the way others might talk about writing. It also links back to the notion of artistic creation as an act of skilled craftsmanship that lies at the heart of the socially levelling mask-making of Commedia dell-arte. Some discover character and narrative in words; Crouch carves, connects and builds his out of wood and other materials.
“It’s true that I treat making as a writing form”, Crouch agrees. “I often work with devised theatre, which means you don’t always know what shape a show will take by the time you’ve started building for it. Shockheaded Peter worked that way. I made a lot of body parts – heads, hands – which were pretty much then ‘auditioned’ to go into the production. So, it’s like using found objects; only, they’re objects that you made but you didn’t know why at the time.” ‘Found’ things also include names, as Crouch makes clear when he explains what inspired the vaudevillians at the heart of The Devil & Mister Punch.
“I was asked to become artist-in-residence at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. And on my first day I had to do a sort of show-and-tell. I had already made a few puppets, so I showed some footage and pictures and said that we were doing a Punch show. Afterwards, the lady in charge of the archives came up to me and said, ‘you do know that it played in this room, don’t you?’ She brought out these old newspapers from 1870 and there were three articles about this company, run by two men called Harvey and Hovey, who were performing ‘The English Punch’.”
With the exception of two (very much alive) New Zealand rugby players who just happened to share their names, neither man could be traced. But it didn’t matter; the spark had been lit. Crouch is a strong believer in serendipity and coincidence as spurs to the imagination and this was just the kind of fortuitous discovery to get his creative juices flowing. And to cement matters, opposite one of the newspaper articles was an ad for a Weber Piano. This was same Victorian brand that Crouch had recently bought and – as he shows me on his iPhone – included in his initial storyboards for the show. There was no doubt. The Devil & Mister Punch had found its leading characters.
This is theatrical storytelling and designing as a collage-like process, with a dash of signs and portents thrown in. Rather than closing off avenues to a new project by approaching it with a fixed plan, Crouch creates bits of puppets, sketches scenes and images and accumulates names, places and dates until a narrative picture presents itself to him that works. It is little wonder, then, that the centuries-old story of Mr Punch, constantly evolving to reflect its audience and lacking a definitive ‘script’ as such, holds so much appeal for him – a man energised by not knowing where he will end up when he starts something.
But why does Crouch find puppets so fascinating? His answer echoes both the origins of Punch and the more recent use of puppets by companies such as Yas-e-Tamam Theater Group (in their Iranian production of The House of Bernarda Alba at New Diorama Theatre) to make satirical or social or observations that would otherwise be impossible or off limits.
“What I love about puppetry is how close it is to the gutter. Because if you look carefully, that’s where you can see the moon reflected”, Crouch says. “Historically, puppetry and masks haven’t been seen as high art. When theatre has been banned, here and in the USA, as dangerous or incendiary, puppet theatre hasn’t. And because it’s treated as a gutter art, it’s a perfect tunnel to underground political comment. So while I kind of support the puppetry world’s fight to be seen as high art, I also know that one of the reasons I like it is because it’s not.”
And it is no coincidence that in The Devil & Mister Punch Harvey and Hovey are as important to the story as the swizzle-voiced troublemaker. Throughout his career, Crouch has enjoyed exploring the creative relationship between puppeteer and puppet; the theatrical charge generated in the uncertain space that exists between a performer’s intentions and what actually happens on stage. “And if you’re going to do something about puppeteers, why waste time?” he asks. “If you want to get to the heart of the thing, pick a story that everyone knows and then you can have some fun. That’s why I chose Punch.”
What captures Crouch’s imagination about the earliest performances of Punch is the Sicilian style of marionette they employed before costs necessitated a shift to the now-familiar glove puppets. “In a way, our show slightly harks back to this time,” he reveals. “String marionettes – which used to be called British or ‘trick’ marionettes – were originally for transformations and surprises, when you didn’t want show what was making them move. Sicilian marionettes are very different because they are heavier and have a rod that goes into the head and is always very present.”
For Crouch, exposing these joints and joins to an audience and asking them to take a leap of faith is theatre at its purest and most powerful. “Shows that hide the performers leave part of you thinking, ‘how are they doing that?’” he says, to illustrate his point. “As a result, you’re not in the moment. But when you put the puppeteers on stage, you’re asking the audience to use their imagination. They’ll do that with actors as well, but with puppets they’re even more likely to go the distance and participate.”
But Crouch argues that this only works if the performers are willing to make the same journey. “If a puppeteer believes that what they’re manipulating is real, whether it’s a paper cup or a cardboard cut-out of a tree, it’ll somehow come alive”, he asserts. Just as making and directing are “processes of leading and following”, he describes the “magic act of an actor projecting themselves into their hand” as a dance in which they must surrender to the idea that the strings pull both ways if they are to win over an audience; they must adapt to a puppet’s movements as much as they attempt to control them.
Harvey and Hovey’s love-hate relationship with the puppets they are forced to drag around dodgy bits of Victorian London in order to earn their living is key to The Devil & Mister Punch. “I was keen for them not to like them,” Crouch reveals. “It’s that classic thing of the children’s entertainer who hates children, who’d rather be performing for adults but has become tied to what they’re doing.”
He continues: “That’s the interesting thing about puppeteers, actors or people like me, who make things in their bedrooms and create worlds on their own. Everything is safe and controlled when you’re honing your skill in private. And then you have to make this leap into a public situation and you’re no longer in control. It can spark anger, a sense of being let down by life and other people.”
Crouch sees this desire to control something and then failing as “a rich area for theatre” and admits that The Devil & Mister Punch is as much a reflection of his own frustrations as anything else. “I know that on different levels I’m telling the story of The Addams Family, the story of me and Improbable and the story of my family”, he says. “There are a lot of recognisable, very human stories in this show of trying to control something, failing and watching it fall to pieces.”
But for Crouch, the “little bit of gunpowder” in human nature that sees our best-laid plans blow up in our faces also offers the possibility of artistic creation; the chance that the fragments will recombine to form something new, unexpected and extraordinary. “It’s the Icarus story. It’s about flying high with a dream and ending up in the gutter – only to realise that the gutter can be just as beautiful. If you can let things fall apart, there can be something incredible in that letting go”, says Crouch.
I am reminded of the way in which dead-ends become new avenues in Crouch’s artistic journey when, at the end of my tour of the under-construction set, he reveals that the puppets that didn’t pass the audition for the show weren’t discarded. Instead, brilliantly, they have become the backdrop for Hell.
Ultimately, the artistic possibilities generated by not fixing every piece in place underlie Crouch’s hopes for The Devil & Mister Punch and what might happen in the dance between performer and puppet from one performance to the next. “I deliberately don’t want a story that’s completely sewn up. I want to watch it myself and be surprised every time. And I hope that’s what happens for the audience as well. And if it doesn’t, I apologise from the bottom of my heart”, he says. And when he laughs, it’s not hard to imagine him, even now, playing with puppets in his bedroom.
First published by Exeunt