The Dark Side

I have just been reading about a puppetry festival, taking place in England’s south-west. What took my interest, however, was that half the programming was specifically puppetry for an adult audience. The Bristol Festival of Puppetry – Exploring Different Worlds, has companies and performances from four continents and its programme for adults has a particularly dark feel about it – take a look here. One of the companies, Duda Paiva, looks fantastic. Brazilian born, Dutch resident Duda Paiva describes his work as a

lively cross-over of dance and objects in an exciting and original form of contemporary visual theatre.

Sounds fascinating, doesn’t it? Well, take a look at extracts from two of their pieces. The first is called Bastard!


And the second, Malediction


In connection with the festival, Rachel McNally, the organiser has given an interview to Regina Papachlimitzou from Exeunt, in which she talks about why puppetry has an enduring appeal, and why audiences have such a visceral response to puppetry: 

This is not a full answer, but it’s a partial answer: when you watch an actor perform, even though the performance can be brilliant, and they completely inhabit that character, you still are aware that there is a person behind that character, who is an actor, because you see their face and it’s so familiar. So, for example, if you see Tom Cruise in one movie and then you see him in another, you know it’s Tom Cruise performing and acting. Whereas a puppet is only that character. So you have to believe the puppet, that’s the only existence that puppet has, is to be that character and so if you’re prepared to believe in that puppet, in that character of the puppet, then you believe whole-heartedly in the story.

That’s a very transformative experience for an audience, because you allow yourself to buy in completely, and to be transported. There is an innocence to that which can take you to absolutely delightful places, but on the other hand you can go to some very dark places [as well]. Because you have to go with the puppet. There is obviously the performance that’s coming from the puppet but it’s then also what [you are] putting onto the puppet [yourself], because a puppet does not have facial muscles, so you read them slightly differently.

The other side of it is to do with the relationship between the puppeteer and the puppet. Increasingly in performances, you don’t see the puppeteer blacked out. You see the facial expressions of the puppeteer. Most puppeteers try to keep themselves relatively neutral, because they want the focus to be the puppet. There’s something joyful about seeing someone give that much attention and detail to create a life. Because the puppeteer is investing their own huge level of focus in a puppet, that gives you another reason to go along with the puppet.


That’s the way to do it

As a child I remember watching a puppet show with my grandfather. Nothing unusual in that, except it was on a beach. I can’t recall it very clearly except that I didn’t like the major character, who frightened me. As I have been exploring puppet theatre across the world I have steadfastly ignored this experience until a colleague pointed out that Punch and Judy was as much a legitimate world theatre form as Wayang Kulit. So I was prompted to dig deeper, and even more so when the image below, taken two weeks ago, appeared in the british press.

And the one below is from late nineteenth century.


I hadn’t realised quite how old the form was, or that it had its roots in Commedia dell’arte – although now that seems really obvious. Punch and Judy is one of the world’s most famous and long running puppet shows. It is essentially linked with England but Punch and Judy can be found just about wherever the colonial English decided to ‘set up home’ and english is spoken as a first language, America, Canada, Australia. Here is a great history of the form, written by Keith Preston, an Australian Punch and Judy man.

Punch and Judy has its origins in the commedia street theatre of medieval Italy and Punch arrived in England in 1663 from Italy as the marionette Pulchinello (noted by the famous London diarist Samuel Pepys). The character evolved into Punch over the next century and Punch appeared extensively both as a marionette and as a comic actor and slowly acquired a more English character that was a cross between the English Jester, Fool and the Shakespearean comic characters. In the late 1700’s the London puppet theatres closed and Punch and Judy as we know it appeared as a busking act on the streets of London as a portable hand-puppet show.

To entertain its new audience of street-wise townsfolk this new form of puppet theatre needed to be fast, loud, action-packed, comic and portable. Punch and Judy was all of these and more. The show started with the bottler (assistant who carried the bottle for the money donations) banging a drum and playing the pan pipes. The Punch-Man (later to be called a “Professor of Punch”) stayed inside the booth and operated all of the puppets and most notably the character of Punch whose shrill shrieking voice was created with a special reed inserted in the throat (known as the swazzle).


The early puppeteers led a gypsy style existence moving through the streets of London and also taking the puppet show to fairs and events. When Londoners began to travel to the seaside towns by train in the 1840’s the Punch Professors followed and soon the Punch and Judy Show became a seaside institution. Some beaches and cities have had a Punch and Judy show every year for well over a hundred and thirty years. The Punch Professors guarded their shows fiercely and only passed on the secrets of puppetry to a son or nephew and kept the business ‘in the family’.

The show itself has changed enormously over the last two hundred years. The first written scripts appear around 1830 but illustrations of shows actually appear in the 1770’s. By the time the first scripts are found the Punch and Judy show has already been around for fifty years and has had a chance to develop into a fully fledged puppet show. While the story is new and reflects the life of the then modern Londoner, the script is also full of references to the early years of Punch, to the Medieval mystery plays and to the symbolic dramas, themes and characteristics of England.

The early shows feature Mr Punch , a hook-nosed comic figure with a stick who is a cowardly braggart but strangely likeable. He hides, lies, cheats, steals, beats, boasts eats, drinks and loves his way through a difficult life. He is a rascal but is also an “Everyman” figure in that he represents the average person. In the old storyline he has an argument with other characters, fights them, sometimes he kills them, is chased by the law, taken to jail, but beats the hangman and the devil and ends as triumphant anti-hero. In between, the whole drama is treated as a total farcical comedy with lots of action, routines, jokes and slapstick moments. Other characters include Judy his wife and their Baby, Scaramouch the neighbour and his dog Toby (often played by a real dog) Joey the Clown, The Beadle or Policeman, The Quack Doctor, The Crocodile, Sweet Polly the Mistress, The Hangman, The Devil. In particular the characters of Hangman and Devil owe their origins to the medieval English dramas and early theatre of the Elizabethan period.


Obviously much of this is black-humour but with the comic drama, Punch and Judy acquired a symbolic status as a drama about life itself. Punch and Judy was a hugely popular entertainment for ordinary people on the street but also was often invited into private homes and mansions of the aristocrats.

It is interesting to note that a similar evolution of the commedia/marionettes also happened in other parts of Europe around the same time or slightly later and in Germany we have a similar hand-puppet show-Kaspar, in France – Guignol, Petrushka in Russia, Punchinello in Italy as well as links to the Greek shadow puppet theatre.

Punch and Judy emigrated with the English to America, Australia and other parts of the world in the Nineteenth Century but by the 1940’s was in decline with the advent of films and other aspects of popular entertainment. As with many other forms of traditional performance such as Vaudeville, Circus, Fairs and so on Punch and Judy was able to reinvent itself and had a revival in the 1960’s with the new emphasis on community arts, national pride, tourism and so on.


However over the years the Punch and Judy Show has also adapted and changed. In some cases it has become more of a children’s entertainment, far removed from its origins as a street-play. The rough and tumble violence has been changed and Punch is very much less of a sinister figure than he was in his early days. Some performers however do present shows that portray old-style performances still to this day.

To me it all seems terribly dated, but it clearly lives on. In an article in the Smithsonian Magazine by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie earlier this year the question is asked, Are Punch and Judy Shows Finally Outdated? It would seem not, although Rodriguez McRobbie does  talk about the violence (and murder!) in the shows:

The violence, of course, has remained—and for that reason, Mr. Punch’s influence on children has understandably long been a source of worry. A New York Times article from February 11, 1896, describes children enjoying a Punch show on West 135th Street in Manhattan—and one “grave gentleman,” who resembled Punch “as if they were brothers,” grumbling at the policeman-beating scene and declaring, “It is a shame to show such things to children! How can you expect them to have any respect for the law?”

In 1947, the Middlesex County Council in England banned Punch and Judy from schools, prompting wide outcry from Punch fans and his eventual reinstatement. More than 50 years later, in 1999 and 2000, other councils in Britain considered banning Punch and Judy shows on the claim that they were too violent for children; they didn’t, but it was close……Punch defenders claim that’s just modern oversensitivity. “Although adults get very upset about the violence, the bashing the baby, it’s no more real to a child than watching a cartoon, like ‘Tom and Jerry,’” says Cathy Haill, curator of popular entertainment for the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. “Ninety-nine percent of children will roar with laughter [at ‘Tom and Jerry’] and not think ‘Oh, I’ve got to write to the society for prevention of cruelty to cats’…Nowadays, people are far more— and I hate this term—politically correct and get ridiculously worried about things like this, in my view.”

Mr_Punch_coverInterestingly though, Punch has been reinvented in a number of ways. In 1994 The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch appeared as graphic novel by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. Last year Improbable Theatre created one of its most famous pieces, The Devil and Mr Punch:







There are two excellent pieces from Exuent that look at this particular show, The Immortal Mr Punch by Gareth Martin, and an interview with Julian Crouch (Designer and Director) by Tom Wicker.


And to finish, a delightful interview from 3 days ago, entitled Keeping Punch and Judy in the family, by Giulia Rhodes for the Guardian, where she talks to three generations of a Punch and Judy family.


Riding High

Today’s post is born out of one those moments of revelation when you think ‘how did I miss that? How can I not have heard of that’.  I am writing about the Bamana giant body puppets of Mali. If you have never heard of this tradition it is well worth looking at, because when I say big, I mean BIG!


I need to point out at this stage that in the Bambara language the same word is used for both ‘mask’ and ‘puppet’, since both serve the same function: to enable mythical and supernatural beings to be brought to life by hidden performers. I got a little confused at first, but I like the idea that there is no distinction between the two .


Below is a brief background, courtesy of Museum of African Art in New York, but first I suggest you watch this.  The narration is in French (Mali was a French colony until 1960) and very accessible even with my poor school-boy ear.


At Arm’s Length: The Art of African Puppetry

The art of Malian puppet theatre, the Sogo bo (the animals come forth), practiced by the Bamana of Mali and originated by the fishing community of Bozo, dates back to pre-colonial Mali. Sogo bo, a performance of puppet and mask dances, tells stories of Malian tradition, imparting valuable lessons in morality while entertaining the audience.

Within the Sogo bo performance animals of the bush are paramount.The Bamana describe themselves as cultivators and hunting people, and it is therefore animals from the bush that predominate. The animal characters represent far more than their counterparts in the bush. They are the symbols, the tangible manifestation of the essential force of the animal. They are the imperial majesty of the buffalo or the conniving duplicity of the hare. The qualities are implied through the costume and the dance of the masker. The buffalo masker regally marches about, and the youthful spark of the hare can be seen in its quick, vigorous movements. The antelope can be seen striding grace-fully, and the baboon jumps about with vigor.


The Sogo bo masquerades are organized by the village youth associations, the kamalen- ton, and the subject matter most commonly dealt with is hunting and heroic behavior. The youth associations, in essence, own the masquerades. They organize the activities of the night, and it is their stories that the masquerades tell. Weeks prior to the fete, the youth organizations meet frequently, planning and choreographing the events of the masquer- ades. The youths of the kamalen-ton choose the cast of characters, the costumes, the stories, and the masks that will be used. They may choose to bring out and refurbish used masks or create new ones. Their mothers, wives, and sisters provide the textiles neces- sary for the costumes. Once the major planning is completed, the youth organizations split into smaller groups and work on the particular renovation or construction projects assigned to them. Throughout this process, the older men act as consultants, offering advice on the construction of the more intricate puppets.

The puppet masks of the Sogo bo are generally worn over the bodies of the performers (usually two men). The performer(s), surrounded by the wooden frame of their puppet masks, are hidden from view by straw and cloth which cover the frame.The head of the puppet is manipulatable , and from within, the performers move the puppet about in dance.


The Sogo bo performance takes place at night, and can carry on well into the early morning hours, consisting of more than twenty sets of dances. Called to the dance by the beat of the drums, the maskers, either individually or in small groups, dance in character. The large and powerful beasts lumber about slowly, majestically (the more powerful ones come out towards the end of the night), while the energy and spark of youth can be seen in the dance of the smaller animals. Each dance set lasts only five to ten minutes, and in between, the women’s chorus provide song (praise songs for the animals). The chorus, however, does not perform during the dance sets, the sets are without voice. It is the masks, the movement of the maskers, and the beat of the drums that tell the story.Untitled_Fotor

Malian puppetry features maaniw, “little people” or puppets in human form. They range in size, from small hand-held rod puppets to almost 6-foot tall figures. Maaniw play an important role in initiation ceremonies and often appear at nighttime on the backs of kalaka (small stages in the form of a body). They often speak of the individual’s place in society and teach morals.

Though there are certain tenets that are retained in the storytelling, it is by no means a static tradition. Puppet plays that were once held only on specified days are now held on weekends, to accommodate the schedule of those who have left the village to make a living in bigger cities. Modern issues are dealt with, and the plays continue to reflect the lives and times of the Bamana.


1244916533630_FotorThen I read about Yaya Coulibaly, 7th generation descendant of Mamari Biton Coulibaly (King of Segou region of Mali) who is the director of the Sogolon Puppet Troupe. After training at the National Institute of Arts in Bamako, Mali,  and l’Institute International de la Marionette in France he mastered the traditional Malian arts of puppetry.  It would seem he doesn’t rest with tradition either. Malian puppet performances are traditionally voiceless, but Yaya has chosen to integrate voice and performance. I realised I had heard of him before and then I remembered he had worked with Handspring Puppet Company, the people who created the horse puppets for War HorseThey collaborated on a piece call Tall Horse which blended two puppetry traditions: the Handspring work which is based in lifelike realism and the stylised, ritual rtallhorsebased puppetry of West Africa. The play’s narrative is of  a giraffe and its handler, Atir, sent as a gift from the Egyptian Pasha to the French King Charles X in 1827. Its journey took it via Alexandria and Marseilles, creating a sensation en route. Tall Horse premiered in Cape Town and then went on to tour the world. This blending of styles really appeals to me. I would have loved to have seen the play.

Many of you reading this will know of ISTA – the International Schools Theatre Association and they published a great article a few years ago by Laurie-Carroll Bérubé about her staging of Tall Horse which you can read here, Malian puppetry traditions.

Changing tack slight, as part of my research I came across this fascinating recording of Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler (Handspring’s founders) and others, talking about puppetry as a contemporary medium of communication and influence. Puppets and politics – fantastic! You will need a couple of hours, but it is really, really interesting and worthwhile.


I’ll finish with a few useful facts about Malian puppetry, taken from Bérubé’s article:

Boliw is the raw spiritual energy/ power contained within performance objects such as masks and puppets. It is believed that women possess boliw – because of their ability to give birth.

Castalet: the large body-puppet, which represents a gentle mythical beast. The body of the animal is a cloth and raffia-covered frame which conceals the puppeteer inside who dances, making the raffia skirt sway.

Merens habitables are the long- necked female characters of traditional Malian performance. Merens habitables are manipulated only by men and post-menopausal women because only they are able to control the boliw contained within the puppet.

Sogo Baw or Sogow (Big Beasts): these are large body-puppets (roughly 2 m long, 1.5 m high), generally representing bush, savannah or domesticated animals. Sogo baw can resemble mobile puppet theatres with small puppets on the larger animal’s back, manipulated from within.

Sogo Bo: the annual masquerade (the Animals come forth) held in June, just before the rains come to Mali’s Segou region