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.”