Sunday 11th of May 2008 saw the 33rd annual May Fayre in the grounds of St Paul’s Church in London's bustling Covent Garden. Although the event is billed as a Puppet Festival, one might be forgiven for thinking that it exists almost exclusively to celebrate only one form of puppetry, the traditional Punch and Judy show, so dominant is the form at the event, and so much to heart have Punch performers taken the May Fayre. For them, it is 'the red letter day' in the Punch calendar (as Punchman Professor Geoff Felix put it). It is an opportunity for Punchmen and women to get together, to see each other’s shows, to exchange gossip and ideas and to talk about how the world waxes. The sense of carnival and celebration is palpable as the noise of the swazzle fills the air and the sight of the many striped booths clashes with the green of the churchyard grass and the soft pink blossoms of the overhanging cherry trees.
The association of Punch with Covent Garden is a longstanding one. It is from a diary entry by Samuel Pepys on May 9th 1662 that Punch performers date Mr Punch's birthday. George Speaight, interviewed in the TV documentary 'As Pleased as Punch' (produced by Glyn Edwards in 1987) tells us that Pepys had gone to Covent Garden to 'view a picture in an ale house' and happened upon the show which he describes as 'very pretty, the best I ever saw' (cited in Robert Leach: Punch and Judy, History, Tradition and Meaning. 1985, pg 21).
This show, performed by Italian puppeteer Pietro Gimonde, was not the Punch and Judy show as we now know it; his was a marionette show, the glove puppet form did not emerge for another hundred years, but the character was much the same. Such is the indelible link between Punch and Covent Garden that in 1962 at the 300th birthday celebrations of Punch, a commemorative inscription on the wall of the portico to St Paul’s was unveiled. The inscription was paid for by subscription and supported by The Society for Theatre Research and the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild. It reads 'Near this spot Punch's Puppet Show was first performed in England and witnessed by Samuel Pepys'.
The tercentenary, attended as it was by more than forty Punchmen, was one of only three or four occasions prior to the inception of the May Fayre that Punch performers have met in any number. The Punch community is a necessarily fragmented one, performers generally work apart from each other, and there has always been an etiquette of distance in the form – puppeteers are usually reluctant to steal each other’s audiences – and these distances are now in the order of hundreds of miles rather than, as previously, hundreds of yards. Whole generations have gone by without significant large-scale gatherings of any kind, and the regularity of meeting for performers which the May Fayre represents has had an important impact on the tradition in terms of dissemination of ideas, encouragement of newcomers, and not least, the affirmation and substantiation of a tradition which almost by definition, carries with it overtones of the marginal and the transient. The 325 birthday celebrations in 1987, also at Covent Garden, attracted over ninety performers. By this time the May Fayre was an established annual event and it would often be host to twenty or more shows.
As well as affording an opportunity to anchor and sustain a tradition for performers and audiences, Covent Garden represents one of the few examples in which the avowed rebelliousness of Punch and Judy has been yoked to an identifiable political agenda. The May Fayre is one of a range of public expressions which were instigated to counter what was felt to be a disregard of the voice of the local people when the market itself was threatened with demolition in 1975. The old market moved out of the centre of London and redevelopers were keen to move in and put up shiny new office buildings. Many people in the local community, whose voices were not canvassed, felt that this would take the living heart out of the area and resolved to oppose the change. Covent Garden has long been associated with the disenfranchised, the area used to be known as 'Mud Salad', a name derived from the fact that the homeless who lived in the shelters and streets around, would pick up the vegetables and fruit which had fallen into the gutter or been discarded by the market traders as not worth selling. Opposition to the redevelopment came from the streets and the local community. Protest took the form of celebration through performance of the public-and publicly owned-space. Local activists, Maggie Pinhorn and Liz Weston formed Alternative Arts, and set up a busking pitch near the site of the old market, in front of St Paul’s Church, a pitch which still exists and is now internationally renowned for its street theatre.
Along with Covent Garden Community Theatre, run by Richard Robinson, they encouraged and produced theatre pieces in the streets and local pubs. Robinson already had an interest in puppetry, seeing the potential of the puppet figure for political allegory and, more pragmatically, using puppets because, unlike actors, 'they didn't complain, they didn't take up any oxygen, they didn't ask for a wage and you could put them in a suitcase afterwards'.
In 1975, recognising an affinity with the voice of the people as represented by Punch, Alternative Arts sent out invites to as many Punch Professors as they could find and held what was then called a 'Punch Party'. The event was so successful that it has carried on ever since. In fact Maggie Pinhorn believes that if they were not to organise it, the performers would turn up anyway. The protest achieved its goal and the Market buildings are still there now.
The relationship between the performers and the big corporations which own much of the market continues to be an uneasy one and Alternative Arts have had to be adept at keeping them at bay, often using their considerable knowledge of local bye-laws and wily negotiations with the local representatives of authority to retain a foothold in the public space. Maggie Weston sees the establishment of the area as a site of direct encounter as a product of the kind of direct action which was possible in the 1970's, 'heady times' as Robinson describes them. She sees the anarchy of Punch and Judy as prefiguring the political activism of the street theatre movement, and even welcomes accusations that the show is not politically correct as a sign that it can still provoke debate.
The festival has been the site of debate on a smaller, though no less intense, scale as well, and this has contributed to the texture of the tradition, its myths and folklore. Following the day's performances, the puppeteers will retire to a regular dinner venue and then on to a club to hold their annual meetings, or just to socialise. Fierce arguments have been known to break out at these meetings, with beer and even punches sometimes being thrown. Amongst a community of highly individual people, factionalism is only to be expected.
This year controversy was not in evidence and a spirit of celebration pervaded. A celebration not only of Punch, but also of his 'cousins'. Jose Gil from Portugal, one of only five working Dom Roberto performers, did two different shows, The Bullfighter, The Barber, and in the evening a another show, Rosa and her Three Admirers, a farce for adults only; and from Italy, Gianluca Di Matteo performed a Pulcinella show, introduced by Professor Clive Chandler as 'the daddy of them all'. The chance to see other folk puppet forms is rare and the Punch community welcomed the insight into how the popular form has developed in different locations.
Punchman Pete Maggs from Bournemouth described this year's May Fayre as 'vintage', one that will be talked about for years to come. It will not only be talked about but read about and looked at, too. A number of documentary makers of one sort or another were at the festival. A photographer from a Portugese national newspaper was taking a great many images, a journalist from NBC online was recording shows for a webcast, and I was interviewing performers and members of the public for a radio 4 documentary I am writing and presenting.
This year may well stand out as 'vintage'; only time will tell. But regardless, it gives a snapshot of the vitality of Punch and Judy in 2008.