PUNCH & JUDY IN AUSTRA


by Professor Geoffrey Felix

My first memory of this trip to Austria was the heart stopping moment when I had to leave the theatre, puppets and props at Heathrow Airport in the care of baggage handlers. Robert Styles had given valuable advice on this: bubble pac round the frame with extra at the ends - enough to withstand the booth being dropped end on onto a hard surface. You can add to this: sort out the excess baggage and who pays for it, and be paid in sterling or at least allow for bank charges as all these can eat into your profit.

My abiding concern was not to forget anything: double checking the puppets and swazzles the night before helped reduce anxiety. The sound system had to be packed within the main luggage. Nowadays this, and anything sharp, is regarded as a security risk so only 'soft' items can be carried as hand luggage. My only previous experience with Punch abroad was in Ghent and for this I traveled by Eurostar which made it like any train trip but with more baggage and a passport. Going by plane is a different matter.

I found the words 'Punch and Judy' or 'Kasperltheatre' made officials smile and they tended to show some understanding. It was very helpful that Elis Veit, the German speaking festival organizer, could come to the Airport to say goodbye. Unexpectedly, the airline wanted more money for the baggage and she sorted it out. I don't know how she managed to remain so charming and calm with all that responsibility - and she performed as well!

The audience was very curious to see Punch and Judy. Nearly all German Kasperl shows have dispensed with the swazzle. Only the Italian Pulcinella and my own Punch had this. The Englishness of the show was also an asset and the proscenium stood out as being different. More than ever I realized the need for a show based on action. The children can't understand English so it must be clear from the business what is happening. Its fruitless to rely on the, 'Oh no I didn't, oh yes you did.' stuff. It didn't happen.

Irony does not translate either. In Ghent I had simultaneous translation from the best interpreter in Belgium, who was also something of a showman and it was a great luxury that worked well. My advice would be practice the show mute, and go for any routine that works visually. Then add dialogue.

So what of the other performers? There was a very strong line up. For me the star was the Hungarian Vitez Laszlo. Henrik Kemeny had been originally booked but was too ill to attend. He has, thank goodness, an apprentice in Janos Palyi and I thought his show was sensational. His communication on the warm up was with a whistle - no language problems here - and he could open his stage at the front and be face to face with any child who was misbehaving in an instant. His show was about Vitez trying to take some grain to the mill to be made into flour. The mill owner says that it is haunted and Vitez fights three devils and two ghosts. It was not so much the plot but the unrestrained abandon with which he dispatched his enemies that impressed, mostly with a large frying pan. He tossed the ghosts in the air with it like pancakes.

Another highlight was seeing the Austrian Kasperl as performed by the resident company. This festival was held in an amusement park, a bit like Blackpool pleasure beach, and they have a permanent theatre on site. What was nice  to see was the relationship between Kasperl (Thomas Ettl) and his sidekick Boing (Markus Siebert) a 'muppet style' puppet like a bird with blue fur who had charm in bagfuls. His satirical, and improvised, comments got big laughs from the audience. You felt that you were witnessing one day in an ongoing life that they share together. Apparently they are not allowed to show slapstick on television so Boing does not appear. However Kasperl has his own show and interestingly the audience is part of that, so you see and hear their reaction. I saw one programme where Kasperl took granny to two incompetent witches to try and cure her of hiccups. The witches were especially amusing as they bickered and got everything wrong.

The puppets themselves were made in what I call the German style: carved wood showing the natural colour and chisel marks.Their maker George Albert very kindly showed me around the theatre where he and Elis also perform. I noticed that few of the puppets had rings and were laid down rather than hung on hooks.

Other festival highlights were seeing Salvatore Gatto who manipulated with great finesse and whose rhythms and swazzling with Pulcinella almost became a piece of music, he and his accompanist had such co-ordination. Also from Paris, Philippe Casidanus performed Polichinelle with  old puppets some of which had been in use for 100 years. His green Devil was traditional and didn't speak but made a hissing, swazzle type sound.

I was also pleased to meet Kasper from Berlin who, while again not swazzled, was the most similar to our Punch. Jutta Matthess and Norbert Luedtke have made a study of old texts and she carved all her own figures. Her Judy was the closest I have seen to the Cruikshank illustration. Again the Devil appeared in the show, rising up and down in a box.

Elis Veit and the puppeteers of the Kasperl Theatre went to great effort to make everyone welcome and I felt that the festival was a great success. Well done to them all.
                                                            G. Felix 2005 (June 2005)


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