'Crow' - Handspring Puppet Company UK
The Borough Hall at Greenwich Dance Agency, London
In front of a placental like projection, a scrawny, new-born crow struggles to its feet atop a mound of earth slowly gaining control of its extremities as more puppeteers come to its aid. Around the mound dancers move in abstract forms and the discordant sounds of Leafcutter John’s music layers over the spoken recitation of parts of Ted Hughes’ poem cycle Crow.
This is a heady mix of ideas and Handspring Puppet Company UK’s first production, is certainly not short of them. However, its fusion of poetry, puppetry, dance and ambient electronica is as confusing as it is illuminating and whilst individual moments are affecting the whole leaves you feeling decidedly unmoved.
Hughes’ poem cycle is itself disjointed, lacking in narrative and was constantly altered during his lifetime. Creating a cohesive theatrical production out of such source material is a challenge and Mervyn Millar and his team deserve credit for the attempt. What they capture brilliantly, at times, is the bleakness and questioning of the poems as dancers wrestle and fight their way through their way through relationships and an intricately manipulated crow picks over the washed up corpse of God.
But too often it is the words more than the visuals that contain the power. An awkwardly manipulated snake puppet does little for Hughes’ reimagining of the Garden of Eden in ‘Apple Tragedy’ and the hemi-spherical set rarely aids the fluidity of the production as trapdoors are clumsily opened and closed.
The aesthetic design of the puppets is generally striking, the sexually predatory human-crow hybrid, replete with engorgable phallus, being particularly memorable but given the pedigree of the cast and crew it is hard not to be critical of some of the puppet design and manipulation. So while the smaller crow puppets exist beautifully on the ground with inquisitive twitching heads, suspiciously eyeing up their surroundings, they fail once airborne, becoming nothing but objects carried around the room by their puppeteers with clanking, lifeless feet.
The creation of a giant crow from fragments of the set is almost the spectacular visual climax the show needs but it requires more rehearsal to pay dividends. Sadly when the puppetry is really good it frequently gets lost: the largely black puppets disappearing into the darkly coloured set.
Where Handspring UK has captured the essence of their parent company is in the willingness to take risks and experiment. Combining puppetry and dance makes a lot of sense. Both are theatrical forms with developed physical languages that invite us to engage with a more abstract representation of life and both have the potential for lyricism and deconstruction that seems appropriate for Hughes’ poetry. The varied representations of the crow, which during the course of the show grow from scrawny fledgling to towering giant, are constantly interwoven with both human and puppet forms: a constant reminder that Hughes’ crow is a part of us.
Not all of the result is successful but it makes for an hour of theatre that with some refinement could be a bleak and powerful exploration of Hughes’ poems but as it stands there are too many loose ends and plateaus for it to be truly affecting.
Written by Ted Hughes, Directed by Mervyn Millar, Dramaturgy by Matthew Dunster, Choreographed by Ben Duke, Music by Leafcutter John