A matter of life and death: puppet masters reveal darkly humorous side in Hong Kong
Circus-set struggle between good and evil and Gothic thriller based on Edgar Allan Poe’s stories feature in city’s ‘From Puppets to Humans’ Series
Think of puppets and bright, fun shows for children often come to mind. Or perhaps religious performances, such as the shadow puppets of India or Indonesia.
Yet not all puppet shows are family friendly and even some of those that are, on closer inspection, have disquieting undertones.
Two such productions are on their way to Hong Kong in September and October – featuring elements of Gothic horror, death, insanity, mystery and black humour – which form part of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department’s “From Puppets to Humans” Series.
Some people believe that puppets are particularly well suited to dealing with the darker side of life.
Charles Dickens, after watching a performance of the popular puppet show, Punch and Judy, wrote in 1849: “It is possible, that one secret source of pleasure very generally derived from this performance … is the satisfaction the spectator feels in the circumstance that likenesses of men and women can be so knocked about, without any pain or suffering …
“Punch is one of those extravagant reliefs from the realities of life which would lose its hold upon the people if it were made moral and instructive.
“I regard it as quite harmless in its influence, and as an outrageous joke which no one in existence would think of regarding as an incentive to any kind of action or as a model for any kind of conduct.”
Punch and Judy is one of Europe’s most famous puppet shows, particularly popular in Britain.
The performance is based on the 16th-century Italian commedia dell’arte – theatre, often masked, which is both scripted and improvised and usually has stock figures.
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Punch’s character is based on Pulcinella, a manifestation of the Trickster figure of many of the world’s ancient mythologies.
The Trickster is very clever and has secret knowledge which he uses to play tricks and disobey the rules, challenging social norms and the perceived natural order.
The first record of a performance of an early version of Mr Punch in Britain is in 1662 by diarist Samuel Pepys.
The show then grew in popularity and reached its zenith in the early 18th century in England.
Just like in classic folk tales, such as Robin Hood, the key figures feature in each telling of the story, but subsidiary figures change and go in and out of fashion according to the time in which it has been performed.
Mr Punch and his wife Judy, who was originally called Joan, always have a part to play, along with, usually, their baby, a hungry crocodile, a doctor, an overzealous policeman – and a string of sausages.
However, earlier members of the show’s cast often included the Devil and Punch’s mistress, Pretty Polly.
Sometimes there was also a hangman, who would try to punish Mr Punch, only to himself be tricked into sticking his head in the noose.
During Victorian times, the show evolved into one for children and these figures came to be seen as inappropriate for young audiences so they were removed.
Still, the show today is far from completely sanitised; in fact, it is almost pure violence from start to finish.
The plot, done farcically at breakneck speed, generally begins with Mr Punch, with his witchy, curving nose and pointy, protuberant chin, entrusted with looking after his baby.
He fails in his duties, Judy is incensed, and fetches a stick and they begin to beat each other.
A policeman arrives to quell the mayhem, only to be chased off by Punch.
Then comes a call for dinner – and the string of sausages appears. Fights with a crocodile, the doctor, and any number of other characters, depending on the production, ensue.
At the end, Punch emerges gleefully triumphant.
While Punch and Judy still is generally considered a children’s play, there are two puppet shows coming to Hong Kong that are overtly recommended for older audiences.
Sofie Krog Teater
“Our company likes to play with black humour,” says Sofie Krog, artistic director of the award-winning Denmark-based Sofie Krog Teater, which will perform Circus Funestus – described as an apocalyptic love comedy – on September 21, 22 and 23 at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.
“We use scary and dark effects, and we are not always so pedagogical. [Young] children do not understand this; that is why our show is for older children and adults.”
Circus Funestus focuses on the story of the microscopic circus hero, Mr Flea, after he declares his undying devotion to the adorable elephant in the circus during a performance.
His romantic declaration drives the evil Mr Whip mad with jealousy and he conspires with a group of evil props to take over the circus.
What was once just a circus performance becomes a life-and-death struggle – between good and evil – as Mr Flea tries to save his love and also the circus.
Krog says that puppets have a special power.
“All living things are bound by ‘earthly rules’, such as breathing, eating and dying,” she says. Puppets are the opposite – there are no rules written for them.
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“They are free and unbound by expectations. This is what I like so much about them. This freedom makes them so magical, surprising and fun to work with.”
There are 11 puppet characters in the show, managed only by Krog and her co-director, David Faraco.
They have had to practise countless times to move at the speed of “a musician, acting fast with both hands”, she says.
The duo also controls the lights, sound, video and smoke used during the show.
Poe’s Curse by the award-winning Spanish theatre group Teatro Corsario is another puppet show that delights in the gleefully sinister.
The performance is based on works by Edgar Allan Poe, the celebrated American writer of mysteries and the macabre.
It blends three Poe works into a new tale of Gothic horror.
Annabel Lee was the last poem completed by Poe before his death in 1849 from alcoholic collapse.
Like many of his poems, it deals with the death of a beautiful woman.
The Black Cat, a short story Poe wrote in 1843, is a study of violence, guilt and insanity, while The Murders in the Rue Morgue is about the gruesome killing of a mother and daughter.
The story, which features a razor-wielding ape and the detective, Dupin, is sometimes called the first modern detective story.
Dupin displays many traits that have become classic literary conventions in detective fiction, including the stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.
Poe claimed that he was not part of the thriving Continental Gothic movement – saying that, for him, “terror was of the soul, not Germany” – yet his tales share themes of the period. And many say his themes stem from the same source.
“Gothic fiction and Gothic revival architecture, such as follies, faux ruins and mazes, of the 19th century was a reaction against the scientific certainty of Enlightenment rationality,” says novelist Louis Greenberg, who co-writes horror-thrillers with author Sarah Lotz under the name S.L. Grey.
“By setting their Gothic works in crumbling ruins of medieval cathedrals and in ancient castles, Poe, Coleridge, the Shelleys, Byron, the Brontës, Le Fanu and ultimately Stoker celebrate the invincibility of death and the inescapability of history.
The 19th-century Gothic delighted in showing how death and entropy would always emerge victorious.”
Poe’s three tales of death, insanity and mystery are woven together to create a dark and spooky performance that combines exceptionally skilled puppetry by a team of four with evocative lighting, and unnerving, dramatic music – all designed to keep audiences alternating between cowering into and gripping onto their seats.
The show won the critic’s prize: best production award at the 2010 Lleida Puppet Theatre Festival in Spain and the best show award at the Pula International Festival in Croatia.
The show, which has won rave reviews across Europe, will be performed in Hong Kong on October 12, 13 and 14 at the Sheung Wan Civic Centre.