Off the tourist track: Punch & Judy

Sunday, June 5, 2016

I seem to have developed a backlog of blog topics without a corresponding amount of time or desire to actually write blogs about them, which means you may be in for a somewhat haphazard, chronologically challenged next few posts.  Also, the show I’ve been working on has now taken over my life completely, so the fact that I’ve found the time at all to get something posted is a minor miracle. (Actually, it's thanks to the recent Bank Holiday weekend, my disinclination to spend another afternoon elbow-deep in the show, and Blogger's ability to schedule posting in advance.  Like the blog equivalent of a post-dated cheque. Remember those?)

Back about a month ago, on a sunny Sunday afternoon before the show was all-consuming and I had a whole luxurious day of nothing in particular to do, I was reminded of a yearly event that’s been on my list to attend - the Covent Garden May Fayre.

Covent Garden Market.  There's a good reason why this lovely pub above the market has the name it has, as we shall soon see.

I get reminded of these kind of things because I receive an email from TimeOut London that appears in my inbox each evening and lists half a dozen or so interesting things to see and do in London the next day.  It’s an embarrassment of riches, and a constant reminder of what an astounding place this is to live.  For instance, I’m writing this on a Bank Holiday Monday so my TimeOut email for the weekend covers three days worth of events and includes, among other things: a free documentary screening, a vintage fun fair, a “baby disco” for kids under five, a walking tour covering every street in St. James’, a gallery exhibition open until 10pm, a street food festival, a debate among leading female scientists on the latest discoveries in their fields, a pop-up Hungarian-themed bar, a chance to tour the entrance hall of Brunel’s Thames Tunnel, a Miami Vice themed party (in Hoxton, of course), an interactive “enchanted garden parade” (whatever that is), a poetry reading, a picnic (on a Bank Holiday! Folly!) and, of course, a one-night-only Game of Thrones themed comedy night at a pub.  All of which is just to reiterate, again, how totally amazing it is to live in this city, even though right now I have no burning need to attend a Hungarian pop-up bar.

It was particularly nice to be reminded about the Covent Garden Fayre, because its main attraction is a large display of Punch & Judy shows, which is an odd and interesting bit of English culture that I think is perfect for Go Stay Work Play Live.  Punch & Judy is a traditional form of puppet show featuring Mr. Punch (based on the Italian commedia dell'arte character Pulcinella) and his wife Judy, along with a small cast of other stock characters such as the Baby, the Constable, the Doctor, the Crocodile and, oddly, a string of sausages.  Using hand puppets, a single performer known as The Professor sets up in a small free-standing puppet theatre and performs all parts, switching deftly among puppets and voices while acting out a short series of sketches from what must be a very very well-worn playbook.

Several Punch & Judy puppet theatres.  
There were no less than sixteen different booths set up for this year’s event.

Punch & Judy shows have a remarkably long history.  The first recorded mention of one is by the famous diarist and cheese-hoarder Samuel Pepys, who saw a show at Covent Garden on May 9, 1662 (hence the name of the pub).  This means that though this was only the 41st Covent Garden May Fayre, it was celebrated as Mr. Punch’s 354th birthday.  And note the olde worlde spelling of “fayre".  I was going to be snide about this until I read about Pepys and realised that this is genuinely an olde worlde thing.

The Fayre was set up in the churchyard of St. Paul’s, Covent Garden - not to be confused with the much much much much much much much more famous St. Paul’s Cathedral.  The churchyard of St. Paul’s is a lovely tiny little patch of green that’s hidden from the tourist-choked hustle of the Covent Garden Market and yet only steps away, down a few different narrow and mostly unmarked alleyways.  It’s a great place to get away if you tire of negotiating the endless living statues and selfie-sticks of the main market.

The church’s imposing main portico faces out onto the market square and is a favourite spot for buskers.

The church’s design is attributed to Inigo Jones and was completed in 1633.  Oddly, the main door of the portico onto Covent Garden is merely decorative, backing onto the altar inside. The main entrance to the church is through the plainer western facade reached through the churchyard.  More interesting, though, is the church’s long association with the theatre community in London.  St. Paul’s is often called the Actor’s Church and inside the walls are lined with modest wooden plaques commemorating famous and not-so-famous actors, directors, playwrights and impresarios of London’s theatre past, including Vivien Leigh, Boris Karloff and Noel Coward.  The church also has a nicely restored interior and a credible looking pipe organ.  And on the day of the May Fayre, Mr. Punch himself participated in the Sunday service at the church

Boris Karloff’s plaque

And here’s the much friendlier hidden side of St. Paul’s, teeming with happy fayre-goers.

Because the churchyard is so small, it didn’t take a lot to fill it up with people, puppet theatres, food vendors, and stalls selling Punch-related items like vintage books, hand puppets and paper cutout puppet theatres, which gave things a properly festive atmosphere.  I arrived too late to see what was billed as the “Grand Procession” (complete with brass band), so I contented myself with wandering around waiting for the next show to start.

Each little puppet theatre had a sign like this.  I guess it’s A Thing.  Also A Thing?  The red and white striped cloth that covers the bottom half of most booths.  Punch & Judy shows are utterly saturated with tradition, as we shall see.

Mr. Punch himself has a very distinctive look - he wears brightly coloured jester-like clothes and a pointed hat and has a long hooked nose that curves down almost enough to meet his pointy chin.  Most distinctive, though, is his voice.  While other characters speak in a natural voice (somewhat higher for Judy, but otherwise pretty normal), Punch sounds like a high-pitched Donald Duck. (Audio recording here)  The puppeteer accomplishes this by means of something called a “swazzle”.  The swazzle is a tiny reed-like device held up against the roof of the mouth.  When playing Punch, the Professor will direct the air through the swazzle, producing a mostly-unintelligible rasping voice that’s very distinctive, if perhaps not entirely effective at conveying key plot points.  Most amazing is that the Professor must also voice the other characters without using the swazzle, meaning they must have very dextrous tongues, in order to move the swazzle in and out of position in their mouths.  This is done while also remembering their lines and using both hands to manipulate the puppets.  I’d love to see behind the curtain during a show sometime.  (Also, I love that I’ve learned such a perfectly excellent new word in pursuit of this blog post.  Swazzle.  Fantastic.)

As most people know, Punch & Judy shows are notorious for their violent slapstick storylines. The basic plots revolve around Mr. Punch being irresponsible and disobedient when left alone and then violently attacking whoever comes back to check on him with a large wooden club. Sometimes the responsible puppet - Judy or the Constable or the Doctor - will get a few whacks in as well, but eventually Punch triumphs over the forces of law and order.  It’s very much a set storyline.

Punch and his slapstick, having felled some poor puppet now sprawled on stage left (possibly so the Professor could prep another one on his left hand below).

Punch & Judy shows started life as entertainment for adults, and the cast of characters often included Punch’s mistress, Pretty Polly, and the Hangman, Jack Ketch.  And while the Devil still appears in modern shows, those saltier characters are now rare, and Punch & Judy shows have evolved into children’s entertainment often seen at kids parties and associated with traditional English seaside culture.  As might be expected, the Covent Garden May Fayre was very much a family event.  Lots of parents with kids were there, and I’m pleased to report that even in the 21st century, Punch retains much of his politically incorrect soul.

The most basic plot line (and I use the term “plot” loosely) involves Judy leaving Punch in charge of the Baby (Aside: amusing comment from Judy about the Baby: “We called him Bill because he came at the end of the month”).  In earlier days Punch would beat the baby with his bat.  These days he usually just sits on the kid, because, naturally, he is “babysitting”.  The audience is often exhorted to snitch on Mr. Punch when the responsible puppet is called away, yet despite loud shouts from onlookers, somehow they never return in time to catch him in the act.  Eventually, though, all is discovered and the Constable is called, with mayhem ensuing. Punch’s stick gets traded back and forth, and makes a satisfying thwacking noise on various hard puppet heads. Often the amount of thwacking necessitates calling the Doctor, who will also inevitably get knocked about a bit as well.  And at some point a string of sausages - inexplicably called "squashages" - will appear for supper.  Despite their previous experience, the sausage owners will leave the food in the care of Mr. Punch, with strict instructions not to dangle them out the window.  Of course it doesn’t take a PhD in dramaturgy to deduce what happens next.  Though I was actually a bit surprised when Punch got his comeuppance from, of all things,  a passing crocodile, who snatched the sausages away in his pleasingly slapstick-like jaws.  All in all, though, it’s not exactly “King Lear”.

Nevertheless, it was clear the crowd enjoyed the show, in that sort of way you enjoy seeing something you remember from childhood carried on for your own kids.  And there was food and ice cream and bright sunlight and opportunities for children to pester their parents to buy them stuff and have little fits when they didn’t.

And just to prove that they could not be more English without actually colonising a nearby designer shoe shop, there was, naturally, maypole dancing.

I stayed to watch enough different versions of shows to understand that there was nothing more to understand, and then, unsurprisingly, went for coffee.  And as I walked I tucked away my thoughts on the day for some future blog post, which, happily, is now complete.

P.S. As usual, though I tend to forget to mention it, there are more photos at my venerable Flickr account.

1 Comment:

Kathryn said...

Swazzle! Brilliant!

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