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Subject: Punch and Judy, QEH, 12Jul98
From: "H.E.Elsom" <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:H.E.Elsom
Date:Sun, 12 Jul 1998 17:16:47 +0000
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Choregos/Jack Ketch   Jeremy Huw Williams
Punch                 Gwion Thomas
Judy                  Carol Rowlands
Doctor                Graeme Danby
Lawyer                Gareth Lloyd
Pretty Polly          Nicola-Jane Kemp

Music Director        Michael Rafferty
Director              Michael McCarthy
Designer              Simon Banham

Music Theatre Wales Ensemble

What could be more appropriate for a July Saturday tipping with rain than
Punch and Judy? Memories of family seaside hols with mayhem. Harrison
Birtwhistle's Punch and Judy, completed in 1965, tries to evoke in an adult
audience the children's response to the traditional puppet show, where the
fun is simply that Punch kills everyone in sight and the "dead" puppets
hang over the edge of the stage. Oh, and the crocodile steals the sausages,
which Stephen Pruslin, Birtwhistle's librettist, left out, though every
child will tell you that it's the best bit.

Pruslin and Birtwhistle repackage Punch's violence in a seasonal cycle of
death and renewal: in the summer he kills the baby and Judy, then rides off
on his hobby horse to woo Pretty Polly, unsuccesfully (this more or less
coincides with the traditional play); in the autumn, he kills the doctor
and the lawyer, and rides off to woo Polly again; in the winter, he kills
the Choregos, who has been MCing, and has a solstice nightmare in which a
witch and a fortune-teller confront him with his crimes; in the spring, he
kills Jack Ketch, the hangman and embodiment of death, and finally gets
Polly. (They are united with a duet not a million miles from the one at the
end of Poppea.) This whole process is presented as a whole-year version of
the spring-time violence and resurrection of the Christian passion
narratives, with commentary arias and chorales.

I don't know if it was this production, first performed in the Cheltenham
Festival last week and now going on tour, or the work itself (which I
didn't know at all before). But I'd rather watch tatty glove-puppets
thwacking each other. The whole point has to be the unstoppable, exuberant
violence, which carries you away even as it turns your stomach. I though
this was potentially there in the music, which is certainly dramatic and
disturbing.

But Gwion Thomas gives the impression of being an amiable person with a
large, pleasant voice, which is grand in general, but not when he's playing
a violent force of nature. And the production, which had a clock-like frame
for the stage and modern commedia dell'arte style costumes, was confused at
the best of times. The choruses told you a new phase was starting, but the
action between was neither structured or irresistable. Unlike Sweeney Todd,
which does the same thing with added politics, Punch and Judy doesn't leave
room for sinister silences and elisions.

Punch and Judy was the first production by Opera Factory in London, and it
was greeting with cries of horror. I'm afraid this one might be greeted
with yawns, though the audience yesterday seemed enthusiastic. A part of
the problem, I think, is that the cycle of nature idea isn't one that we
engage with any more (if we ever did). It's all a bit Northrop Frye. What
really bites in a Bach Passion is the reality of violence and suffering,
and the associated hope of redemption. But Punch and Judy doesn't have a
religious defence. And an opera that really depicted the violent fantasies
of children wouldn't be at all cathartic, because there's no redemptive
suffering in them.

Regards,

Helen

H.E. Elsom
[log in to unmask]
http://www.helsom.demon.co.uk/

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