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Andrew Shore (Punch) / Lucy Schaufer (Judy) [Copyright Catherine Ashmore/English National Opera]
06 May 2008

Punch & Judy at ENO

English National Opera’s production of Harrison Birtwistle’s ‘Punch and Judy’ is the company’s second collaboration with the Young Vic Theatre — following the premiere of Neuwirth’s ‘Lost Highway’ a few weeks earlier — and remarkably, also the second London production of this early Birtwistle work within a month, the previous one having been at the Linbury Studio Theatre, a collaboration between Music Theatre Wales and the Royal Opera.

Harrison Birtwistle: Punch and Judy
English National Opera, Young Vic, April 21, 2008

Andrew Shore (Punch), Lucy Schaufer (Judy), Gillian Keith (Polly), Graham Clark (Lawyer) and Ashley Holland Choregos. Music Director: Edward Gardner. Director: Daniel Kramer.

Above: Andrew Shore (Punch) / Lucy Schaufer (Judy)
All photographs are copyright Catherine Ashmore/English National Opera


ENO has one particular coup up its sleeve. There can be few singers as well-suited to the grotesque, tragic-comic figure of Mr Punch as the baritone Andrew Shore, one of ENO’s most distinguished regular guests and a first-rate singing actor. In full puppet costume, he is the cross between a naughty child, a vicious murderous thug and a sinister nightmare figure — a nightmare which eventually implodes on him with the full force of half-a-dozen Punch clones and the ghosts of his victims.

Giles Cadle’s set and costume designs go all-out to replicate the iconic ‘Punch and Judy show’ look, in primary colours that look slightly shabby and sun-bleached. The stage is a circus-ring with a canopy of brightly-coloured fairy lights. But at the back, a freshly-dug grave is a reminder of the macabre inevitability with which Punch’s serial murders will be carried out.

Ashley Holland strikes an imposing figure as the Choregos, a Greek chorus-like figure who acts as a master of ceremonies, a narrator and moral judge, but who falls victim to Punch just like all the others. It is the Choregos and his murder that first blur the distinction between make-believe and reality, an idea which Daniel Kramer’s staging takes further by stripping away the puppet-costumes from the protagonists as events progress and the moral themes of the piece are developed. Most — including the Doctor and Lawyer, played by Graeme Broadbent and Graham Clark respectively — reach this state of human nakedness at the point at which Punch kills them. As for Punch himself, by the time he comes to feel remorse for the murder of his baby — the first of his crimes — he is no more than a bald, half-dressed, vulnerable human being. Only Gillian Keith’s ringletted, hyperactive doll of a Pretty Polly remains in ‘character', a fantasy figure to the last.

Birtwistle’s brutally uncompromising score — which supposedly upset Benjamin Britten so much at the work’s premiere that he walked out of the performance — is usually subtle and understated, atonal but far from tuneless. It juxtaposes banal nursery-ditties with ‘Passion chorales’ and tragic monologue. The insouciance of the little motif with which Punch shrugs off each murder strikes a vivid contrast with the murdered Judy’s plea for Punch’s reform, sung by the versatile American mezzo Lucy Schaufer.

Credit is due to the cast for managing to get the majority of Steven Pruslin’s wordplay-filled libretto across, and to conductor Leo Hussain (sharing the opera’s five-night run with ENO’s Music Director, Edward Gardner) for maintaining such dramatic coherence in the music.

2204ashmore209.pngA scene from Punch and Judy

Ruth Elleson © 2008

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