Ladies and Gentlemen, pray how you do? If you all happy, me all happy too. Stop and hear me merry little play; If me make you laugh, me need not make you pay. — Punch in a Punch & Judy script written by Collier and Cruikshank, 1832
The handbill for this show said ‘Hand-To-Mouth Theatre. Piggery Jokery and Punch & Judy. Elevating the definition of dexterity to new heights, a performance of two hand puppet shows for four hands. Piggery Jokery follows the Green Man through the cycle of life with humor and pathos, in the company of a delightful pig farmer. Then Punch & Judy, in classic English form, delivers wit, wisdom and whacking with a polished and charming soul. Portland Performing Arts Center, 25A Forest Avenue.’ It certainly sounded interesting to me, who has a long time interest in Punch & Judy shows, so I went to the Web site for Hand-To-Mouth Theatre to see what it had to say about them. Considering that all I knew about Punch & Judy was from television shows like Midsomer Murders, a British mystery series set in a rural county, and references in English newspaper to this form of theater and its political implications, I learned quite a bit!
First, a bit about the performers. Martin told me in an interview that they ‘started their puppet-performing together living literally “hand to mouth,” busking for a living on the beaches of southern England. “Piggery Jokery” is a show which attempts to conjure the forgotten roots of English village puppet traditions. We, Martin and Su, perform this show around all manner of rural occasions from folk festivals to New Age events. [Our] show “The Hysterical Mystery and Mythical History of Mr Punch” is a distillation of the many routines and ideas they tried out during eleven years of living the life of genuine Punch and Judy performers. In 1990 [we] said goodbye to collecting money on beaches and hello to fee-paying engagements in theatres and festivals, and developed a range of original productions.’
This performance of a show more usually done outside was held in the Portland Performing Arts 300 seat amphitheater — a space with both good seats and great acoustics, which was useful as neither Martin nor Su used amplification to make themselves louder. Not that should have been a problem given his voice (loud) and her hurdy gurdy (louder)!
Now you may at this point be asking what is a Punch & Judy show? Ah, good question. Everyone in England knows of Mr. Punch as this odd form of theater goes back at least 330 years according to A Dictionary of English Folklore which notes that the arrival of a new puppet character from the Italian states called either Pollicinella or Punchinello, hence Punch. The original Punch was a fat, ill-tempered and foul-mouthed hunchback who disputed more serious plays with bawdy remarks, fighting and farting. (Judy is the female puppet who gives as well as she gets in this version of Punch & Judy.) These are rather violent undertakings — Punch kills his child, his wife, a copper and finally the Devil! But as Dickens once said, ‘Street Punch is one of those extravagant reliefs from the realities of life. I regard it as quite harmless and an outrageous joke.’ Be that as it may, Hand-To-Mouth Theatre does a performance that is quite, quite violent but excludes the deaths of mother and child. Oh, they get knocked about, which the children at this performance found quite funny, but they don’t die. Rather a thief and a copper end up as sausages as a result of the actions of Punch, sausages that the crocodile eats. (Yes, crocodile!) All of this action is underscored by Su in clothes that would not be out of place in a barbershop quartet tastefully playing a banjo.
Piggery Jokery is actually the more interesting of the two thirty-minute performances as it involves the cycle of a year in the life of a gardner, his plants, and a soon-to-be huge serving of sausages in the form of a pig. Their Web site says of this play that ‘The pathway clears to make way for the Green Man, in the form of a medieval perambulating theatre, and his Traipsing Woman, the droning crone, intoning her hurdy-gurdy. The crowd thickens as small but perfectly-formed rustic dancers mysterious appear and a whole ragbag world unfolds, moving through the seasons with humour, charm, and dark surrealism.’ Martin’s ‘perambulating theatre’ is a sort of telephone-booth-sized enclosure topped off with a rather nicely designed green man.
This is mostly a theater built on movement, not speech, as described on the Web site: ‘There are few words in this perverse pageant of archetypal imagery, but many snorts, grunts, much music, and mirth-making. Then, having delivered this tale of pigs, plants, and general good husbandry, the Green Man is gone…..his hirsute legs hurrying off into the distance.’ The main noise is from Su playing her hurdy gurdy — an instrument she plays remarkably well! The tale is simple. The farmer gets the crops that feed piggery, who gets bigger and bigger and bigger until the piggery becomes lots and lots of sausage. (Early on, the pig rides on the farmer; later on, the farmer rides on the pig.) Piggery Jokery is, despite the pig becoming sausages, far less violent than their version of Punch & Judy. Martin claims in the handbill that was handed out at the performance that the Green Man is the narrator of Piggery Jokery. If so, it isn’t evident from the spoken part of the performance.
I found both pieces to be extremely interesting. Live theater is not my usual fare, so I was indeed surprised how good these short plays were. Piggery Jokery is a very pagan piece which I can only compare to an outdoor production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream that I saw in Seattle some thirty years ago; both felt quintessentially English in a way that few things do. I certainly suggest our English readers with an interest in theater check their Web site to see where they are performing!
(World Puppet Festival, PPA Center, Portland, Maine, September 13, 2001)