Punch and Judy – A tragicomedy in one act to a libretto by Stephen Pruslin
Choregos / Jack Ketch – Jeremy Huw Williams
Punch – Gwion Thomas
Judy / Fortune Teller – Carol Rowlands
Lawyer – Peter Hoare
Doctor – Nicholas Folwell
Pretty Polly / Witch – Allison Bell
Music Theatre Wales
Michael McCarthy – Director
Simon Banham – Designs
Ace McCarron – Lighting
Stéphane Marlot – Assistant director
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 17 March, 2008
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Whether or not the imminent premiere of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s latest opera, “The Minotaur”, has sparked renewed interest in his first full-length stage-work, London is to see two productions of “Punch and Judy” in just over a month. April sees that by English National Opera at the Young Vic, and at the Linbury Theatre it was the turn of Music Theatre Wales – regular visitors to Covent Garden’s this past decade, tackling a work whose controversial premiere by English Opera Group took place almost 40 years ago.
That staging at the Aldeburgh Festival has gone down in history, not least because Benjamin Britten (who helped facilitate the US scholarship on which Birtwistle was able to complete the work) allegedly walked out of the dress rehearsal. While he may have been taken aback by the degree of violence as related not only to the action but also in the music, his comment – to the effect that Birtwistle ought to have given greater attention to the way in which Mozart solved operatic problems – is surprising given that, only four years earlier, Britten’s own “Curlew River” broke decisively with his previous operatic practice; not least in looking back beyond Mozart to traditional music-theatre of the Far East. Although “Punch and Judy” embraces a tradition decidedly nearer to home, the intention on the part of Birtwistle and librettist Stephen Pruslin to create something that might appear the ‘source’ for all later stage- works confirms the composer was intent on solving problems of a fundamentally different order.
Indeed, this is a work whose basis in ‘number opera’ places it directly in line with the earliest operas, albeit given a ‘modern’ feel through its endowing of puppet-theatre with an obliquely existential slant – something not predicated on those Stravinskian models which are most commonly quoted in context. Thus the means by which Punch ‘sees off’ the other main characters in the course of his obsessive search for the love of Pretty Polly, only for that to come about when – after being confronted by his victims with his wrongdoings – he cheats the hangman and unites with Polly and the others around the maypole, takes on a darkness-to-light more associated with Tippett or Vaughan Williams than Britten.
Such came across in this staging by Music Theatre Wales, whatever the trappings of a puppet-booth and -characters attired on handkerchief and shorts that sought to place the work in the context of a good old-fashioned day-out at the seaside. Michael McCarthy’s direction rightly kept the cast in action at all times, evincing that sense of the past within the present that is reflected in the score’s lucid and essentially linear assembly of set-pieces and instrumental interludes. The stage curtain only held good for the Prologue, after which it did service primarily as a shroud for those dead ‘in passing’ and also as a bier-like covering for a hamper out of which emerged the implements of Punch’s torture of and by others. The proscenium, decorated with the quartal elements of a clock-face (time and the seasons already being a vital element of Birtwistle’s mise en scène), made way for the ensemble at rear-centre – in the midst of which Punch’s rocking-horse seemed aptly emblematic of his neuroses. Simon Banham’s costume designs were unfussy yet always appropriate (for all that Punch’s hunched back took on a distinctly phallic quality) if less eye-catching than in some previous productions, while Ace McCarron’s lighting potently underlined the visual quality often made explicit in Birtwistle’s score.
The cast is a fine one. Gwion Thomas conveyed the viciousness of Punch but also a capacity for self-understanding as makes him empathetic in spite of his behaviour. Carol Rowlands made Judy an unusually expressive role, reserving her acerbic side for the Fortune Teller who prophesises Punch’s downfall is a sure highlight. Peter Hoare and Nicholas Folwell were tellingly contrasted as the overbearing but witless Lawyer and Doctor (owing not a little to Berg’s “Wozzeck”), while Allison Bell managed the exacting tessitura of Pretty Polly with aplomb and gave a chilling cameo as the Witch. But it is Jeremy Huw Williams, a suavely amoral Choregos and portentous Jack Ketch, who is the pick of the singers; rarely have these parts been so well characterised as here. Michael Rafferty conductswith unobtrusive conviction – bringing out the resonance of Stravinsky and Varèse, without at all playing down those passages of magical stasis in which the future composer of epic dramas comes through.
Forty years on, and “Punch and Judy” is certainly among the most representative and also durable of Birtwistle’s major works. Indeed, its control of dramatic pace and pungently varied instrumentation are qualities not consistently captured in his later stage-works; nor is that intermingling of tragedy and comedy which has subsequently been much emulated yet rarely equalled. The Young Vic staging is keenly awaited, but Music Theatre Wales has certainly set the bar high for future productions.
- Further performances of Punch and Judy on 19 & 20 March at 8 p.m.
- The first night of The Minotaur is on 15 April at 7.30 p.m.
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera
- Music Theatre Wales
- Decca’s 1979 recording of Punch and Judy is now permanently available on NMC D138
- The first night of the ENO/Young Vic Punch and Judy is April 19
- English National Opera