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.
Improbable’s The Devil and Mister Punch is at the Barbican Centre from 2nd – 25th February 2012. For tickets and further information visit the Barbican website.