Improbable’s recent production, The Devil and Mr. Punch , may have been a rare appearance for the popular anti-hero on the contemporary stage, but this most fractured of figures has a long history of bridging the gap between the base values of a funfair sideshow and the lofty explorations of artists. This is something that isn’t lost on Improbable, with their first appearance of the character being a pastiche of the Sistine Chapel’s famous Creation of Adam; the curtains open to a blue sky, scattered with alabaster clouds. From heaven above a tiny head descends, its face all nose and chin and wicked grin, delicately held in a divine hand. With great ceremony the head is placed on a flexing hand. This new creation stretches, nods, then lowers its eyes, fixing the audience in its gaze. Mr. Punch is born. The density of this image, and its mix of humorous and unerving visual language sets the tone for Improbable’s Mr. Punch. Rather than a simple retelling, it is an exploration of the meaning the character might hold.
This opening is reminiscent of Czech animator Jan Svankmayer’s 1966 take on the mythology: Punch and Judy. One of the strongest examples of an artist using Punch as a conduit for bigger ideas than a cheap hand-puppet could be thought to support, its surreal imagery repurposes Punch’s story as a tool to discuss both the violence and life of the puppet. After treating us to a bizarre opening, filled with clanking automata, the film shows the limp and lifeless bodies of Punch and Judy being filled by eager hands, their trembling movements transforming the puppets into convulsing cadavers. Its imagery is more suggestive of the birth of Frankenstein’s Monster than it is of The Creation of Adam, but it shares one clear connection with Improbable’s more religiously influenced scene, that of Punch taking on an uncanny life of his own. Despite the simplicity of the illusion and the animating hands being clearly visible in both examples, there is something disturbing that goes on, as life seeps into the puppet in front of us. With Improbable’s scene being a mockery of divine creation, and Svankmayer’s a portrait of mans own attempts at creation, both use Punch to explore the blasphemous image of an object given an unnerving life. It’s a life that has none of the fragility of humanity, bolstered by violence rather than threatened by it; it is this robustness that gives Punch’s most intriguing aspects.
In traditional Punch performances, the focus is often on routine, creating a quickfire slapstick that rides on a wave of audience laughter. Both Improbable’s and Svankmayer’s interpretations start from this point, with violence providing a strong punchline, but as time passes this violence escalates, escaping the knock-about antics of the characters, and delivering a commetray on the violent nature on life itself. Svankmayer does this in a dizzying cycle of violence and death, which culminates in images of nails being hammered into the characters faces, or their heads being split in two, all surrounded by rythmic images of men, hammers and coffins, taken from reference books and encyclopedias. Improbable let the violence escape the booth and appear on stage, with Punch’s diminutive puppet being replaced by masked men with baseball bats, stalking each other with vicious intent . It is the exploration of violent cycles that bring together Improbable and Svankmajer, both gleefully engaged in a dance of death.
But Improbable’s Punch isn’t purely defined by this ambition for violence; a key part of the production are the showmen who share the stage with this malicious puppetry. The Devil and Mr. Punch’s performers, the moustached Harvey and Hovey, are as much a subject of the performance as the anti-hero himself. Harvey in particular, appearing to lecture the audience on the frequency of murder, or justifying Punch’s actions, becomes more mysterious as the show goes on, seemingly driven onward by some unseen force, much like Punch himself. This idea of the puppeteers who control Punch’s actions, becoming locked into the same cycle of violence as the puppet, is not a uncommon one. The showmen, or professors as they are called in the UK, have been subjects of obsessive interest for many contemporary artists and writers who take on Mr. Punch’s mythology.