‘Is this Punch and Judy?’
The five words I dread hearing as I finish my set up, tired yet expectant for the performance day ahead. I dread it for a number of reasons. Firstly I hate Punch and Judy. I dislike the story, the characters, the voices and the ghastly caricatured face of the traditional Punch. There has only ever been one Punch Professor (for so they are called) whose work I admired and he emigrated to Australia years ago. His puppets were tiny art works. They changed, metamorphasised from one strange being to another. The judge I remember gave birth, Alien-style to a grinning mini-Margaret Thatcher (it was the nineteen-eighties). And he didn’t condone the violence. Anyway he emigrated and there has not been another Punch Professor to come anywhere near his artistry or humour.
I don’t feel the same about all puppets. This year at Wallingford BunkFest, the wonderful walking puppet booth and beautifully-created puppets of Piggery Jokery presented their charming and engaging show in front of my stage and the children (and many of the adults) were transfixed and delighted. I was too.
The traditional Punch story though is awful. The condoning of domestic violence on that scale, in miniature, even in jest, just isn’t funny. There are too many women (and men) who are and have been victims for it to be anything other than an archaic anachronistic anathema. I don’t agree with presenting it to children in any form. It is exactly the same as my feeling about plastic guns, also often given to children as prizes at open-air events. There are far too many real guns in the world and normalising them in the hands of our children is appalling.
I know I stand the chance of being told to lighten up, it’s only a joke, it’s not meant to be taken seriously. They’re not real guns. They’re only puppets. I say tell that to the victims whose lives have been, and continue to be ruined by a violent partner or parent or family member. Tell that to the parents of dead children in wars across the world. I’m sorry, there is no excuse for domestic (or any) abuse and I don’t want to be expected to laugh at it just because it’s dressed up in carnival colours in a miniature theatre on an event field. Or accept and smile at a child who fires his plastic gun in my face.
I also think that anyone looking at my theatre stage and imagining puppets materialising from it must need their eyes testing. It’s too big to be a puppet theatre. Surely it’s obvious? I do try not to be frustrated by the simple fact that anyone asking that question has probably never been to a theatre, and that therefore their only experience of anything vaguely along similar lines has been a Punch and Judy booth at an event somewhere.
‘Is this Punch and Judy?’ Today, setting up once again after a sad two year absence at the wonderful Queen’s Park Day in Kilburn. I gave my usual reply, “Do I look like a man who beats his wife and throws the baby down the stairs?’ I think this reply is quite clever. Too clever really and I wont use it again because of what happened next. The guy looked puzzled and repeated his question. ‘Is this Punch and Judy?’ Of course I repeated my answer and this time he looked a little put out, looked at me as though I was mad and said ‘What’s that got to do with Punch and Judy?’
I have spent some time wondering what went through his head when I replied to his question with my question. I think, after much thought, he had probably had heard the phrase ‘Punch and Judy’ without knowing what it was or what the story was about. Oh dear. Anyway I wont use that reply again. It was too clever and too patronising. If people have never been to the theatre then they do not deserve to be mocked by me. I shall just smile and patiently say ‘No it’s a magic show, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.’ And I will not come over as a grumpy pompous old git, too clever by half!
All the best from a road near you,