Mr. Punch goes to Spain

Whether you’re a performer looking for tips on working an audience; or a hand puppeteer who wants to see the unpretentious, casual precision of an up-and-down master; or if you’re merely a student of culture who is curious about the way the tropes and gags of a three hundred year old tradition get reinvented—or then again, if you just have three quarters of an hour to spare and you’d like to see something a little different, Ron Burnett’s version of Punch and Judy (“A Cure for All Ills”, “Three Doses Daily”) is for you.

This outdoor show was filmed in Segovia before two or three hundred people, a mixture of all ages ranged across old stone steps in a downtown ampitheatre. Burnett talks constantly in English and Spanish, using his own baritone and Punch’s squeaky swazzle. He also accompanies the performance on a face-frame harmonica. He appears at the start to teach the crowd how to clap, and again at the end, accompanied by Punch, to take a distinctly elegant bow, a middle-sized comely guy in a loose purple sweatshirt and a black top hat. But mostly he’s hidden in a nineteenth-century style booth while his garishly painted, elaborately costumed puppets dance up and down.

British street performers celebrated the 350th birthday of Punch last year, conveniently dating his existance from references in the London diaries of Samuel Pepys in 1667 and 1668, when he recorded seeing “Polichinelli” in a puppet show.

That red-faced, hump-backed, spindly-legged, white-wigged puppet in Georgean costume is a peculiarly British version of Pulcinello, like Kaspar in Germany and Gignole in France. But what Pepys saw was likely an Italian string puppet, probably not even speaking English, accomanied by a dulcimer. The gags of the noisy modern hand puppet are less genteel, and  have their roots in the antics of 19th century street performers, whoses names are long forgotten, although some of their texts have survived.

Many contemporary puppeteers have toned down the sociopathic nature of those shows. Where once Judy (originally “Joan”) offered Punch a kiss and instead beat him with a stick, now they do a “kissy-kissy” routine of mock sex, encouraging the crowd to giggle; where once he threw the baby out the window, now he teaches it to walk and sometimes doesn’t even drop it; he wrestles with the devil but no longer tricks him (or death) into putting his head into a noose; he’s naughty, but not downright bad.

But in the best shows, Punch remains enduringly sociopathic. His incorrectness is key. He’s a scamp, unrepentant, selfish, foolish, rude, over-confident—and he always wins. We like that.

Back to Ron Burnett’ happy sociopath. His Punch doesn’t just throw the baby out the window: he puts him through the sausage machine and cranks the handle to string out a line of purple sausages. Then, when the cop turns up to find out what happened to the baby, Punch, giggling, asks the crowd whether he should meet the same fate.

“Yes,” they shout.

“Really?” says Punch, and the crowd shouts “Yes” again.

Soon there’s a string of blue sausages added to the dangling line of purple ones, an invitation to the crocodile who then makes his entrance. He succeeds in swallowing the sausages but in his fight with Punch he loses his teeth. There’s a hangman and gallows as well: having finished him off, Punch picks up the gallows and swings him around by the neck outside the booth to the delight of the crowd. All good clean fun.

For the dedicated student, here are some further shows, beginning with a Brighton Beach show by “Prof Glyn Edwards.” This is a classic of the genre, a well-produced short film that includes the old tropes, with fresh invention: the clown; kissy-kissy; teach the baby to walk; drop the baby; the policeman (up and down); the three bags of money and the banker; the sausages/crocodile; the sausage machine and the health inspector; the nap/death; the devil. It ends with three cheers and, like Burnett’s, it’s interspersed with a couple of Punch’s favorite sayings, half sung: “That’s the way to do it!” and “Whoopdy Doopdy Doo.” As in the 19th century scripts, there are nonsense words and verbal misunderstandings.

“Don’t turn the handle,” the health inspector instructs Mr. Punch, as he climbs into the sausage machine.

“Burn the candle?” asks Punch in swazzle speech.

“No! Turn the handle!”

So, obediently, Punch turns the handle and out comes a string bright yellow inspector sausages: time for the crocodile to make his entrance.

One last thing. The swazzle (or “pivetta”) is a kind of whistle that the puppeteer holds at the roof of his mouth. If you’re curious about how it works, here’s a short piece in which a culture reporter meets a master puppeteer and takes some lessons. I can’t embed this one, but here’s the link: