Researchers studying the role that women have played in puppetry over the last 300 years of history and how gender has been portrayed through the artform are to develop a contemporary version of Punch and Judy.

Offering a more gender balanced representation of the iconic and at times controversial characters, and drawing upon figures such as the Suffragettes, the show could be set to be unveiled to audiences this summer.

It is being developed by drama experts at the University of Exeter as a public outreach element of The Judy Project, a three-year investigation of women performers and gender in Punch and Judy.

The project, which has been funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme, is led by Dr Alissa Mello, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Communications, Drama and Film, and an expert in puppetry performance.

“Punch and Judy is both iconic and culturally contentious,” Dr Mello says. “Some audiences view it as misogynistic and of making light of domestic violence. But equally, others understand it as unruly, romping family entertainment and its place within the English cultural heritage of misrule. We are very much aware of those sensitivities at the outset, and we think there could be an interesting dialogue here, speaking to the moment now.”

Dr Mello has been visiting archives around Europe and the United States to research the changing nature of the characters and the people connected to them. The first documented performance of the Punch character was recorded by Samuel Pepys in his diary on 9 May 1662, when a marionette puppet called Pulcinella, rooted in the commedia dell’arte tradition of Italy, played at Covent Garden and shortly after at the Court of King Charles II. British puppeteers quickly adopted the character, and employed him and sometimes his then wife, Joan, as a disruptive crowd-pleaser.

It was not until the late 18th century that the booth show we are more familiar with today began to appear. As the characters became hand puppets, so their new-found portability enabled them to migrate away from urban theatres to become staples of popular street and seaside entertainment. And that was just one of several changes over the years. The cast has also evolved to reflect audience tastes including the introduction of the crocodile and, for a short period of time, Adolf Hitler, to replace the devil, while Punch’s mistress, Pretty Polly, and the Chinese jugglers, to name a few, were phased out.

“We think of Punch and Judy as this very traditional form of entertainment, but it’s actually remained very nimble throughout history,” says Dr Tony Lidington, Lecturer in Drama and an expert in British popular entertainment. “What is without question, though, is its influence on British culture. Punch as a British trope is very much recognised today: Punch – or The London Charivari’ – is a magazine which has cocked a satirical snook at fashions and foibles for almost the last 200 years and the very term of ‘Punch & Judy’ has become synonymous with a rumbustious form of knockabout comedy.

“There are around 250 Punch and Judy Professors working in the country, and it is through their shows and those of pantomime, that most pre-teen children will experience their first live dramatic performance.”

Dr Mello will work with Dr Lidington’s company, Promenade Promotions Limited, to develop the show, and in particular with Spike Lidington, who is an emerging Punch and Judy Professor. Together, they will begin rehearsals early in the New Year, with the piece set to draw upon influences such as 18th century actress/manager Charlotte Charke, who ran her own Punch’s Theatre for a period. The costumes of the characters will also reflect both modern and feminist influences, such as drawing upon the colours of the Suffragettes and the Non-Binary Pride flag.

“With something like Punch and Judy, many people are very clear in their minds as to what it means, and so the fascinating element of this is how do you change what people think?” says Spike Lidington. “Maybe there is a way of changing how people think about and engage with this show. At the same time, we have to balance that with making it funny.”

If everything proceeds to plan, the show could be unveiled to the public this summer, including at popular seaside tourist destinations in the South West.

“My hopes for this project are that it adds to the already rich histories of Punch and Judy, and that it attends to the nuanced complexities of the less heard voices of women who have been engaged with and contributed to it across time.,” adds Dr Mello. “I hope it deepens our understanding of Judy, the performance tradition and performances of gender. It is part of a much larger question of the relationship of women practitioners and the way gender is performed on stage in puppetry in general.”

The Judy Project: A Critical and Historical Investigation of Women and Puppetry from the Eighteenth to the Twenty-First Century is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant.