Haunting scenes and brooding prose make Handspring Puppet Company’s Crow a shadowy addition to this year’s Greenwich + Docklands International Festival. Layered with dark imagery, Handspring, in collaboration with Ben Duke’s Lost Dog dance company, presents a winding take on Ted Hughes’ Crow, splicing his poetry with movement and intricate puppet representations of the crow.
Inspired by the grippingly emotional yet simple words of Hughes’ poems, Artistic Director Mervyn Millar was originally drawn to Crow because he felt that at the heart of the work was the same eloquence of feeling he strives to create in his live theatre performances. Moving forward with this base, he saw the opportunity to bring dance into the conversation, because, like poetry, dance is an excellent way to explore non-linear ideas and concepts, like those in Crow.
The result is a unique conversation combining dance, puppetry and poetry, with threads of music, video and lighting adding still more dimensions to the performance. When all of these components harmonized it created moments of impactful visceral imagery, but don’t expect a clear narrative. Crow is more a collection of images chronicling the world of the crow, and his connection to humans.
The work begins with the birth of the crow, and the puppet literally grows from a large earthen mound in the centre of the stage. Throughout the evening the crow goes through many reincarnations, emerging only to get disassembled or destroyed. At each rebirth the crow emerges larger and more determined, only to be ruined by its increasingly human faults and vices. Crow is interesting in its dialog with human nature – where does the crow end and the human begin? Hughes’ exploration of humankind through his poetry is physically manifested in Handspring’s Crow, and it is clearly a struggle, but not necessarily a bad one.
Crow shined in moments where the focus was clear and the audience was allowed to simply sink into the performance. The beginning image was striking because as the text was read the movement perfectly complemented its texture, following the ebb and flow so that neither upstaged the other. Similarly, the finely emotive duet that ended the work sifted and simmered through the words, combining with the poetry to reach a beautiful high point. In these images it was clear that much thought was given to how each piece of the performance could connect with the others to increase the overall strength of the moment.
However, it became too much to follow when poetry, dance and puppetry competed for attention. This chaotic jumble had a slightly alienating effect, jumping the focus, for example, from puppet to video screen to poetry. This gave the piece a generally fragmented feel, and while this may have been intentional at times, it detracted from the emotional impact of the piece.
Crow was at times gritty, hopeful, heated and sexual, as Handspring and Lost Dog explored Ted Hughes’ raw poetry. Explosively physical movement coupled with the intricate workings of the puppets created interesting visual images, and united with the text it often created a nicely layered effect. It was only when these components fell out of sync that it pulled focus away from the work and detracted from the progression of the piece. Overall Crow was a thought-provoking investigation of Hughes’ poems, and made for an interesting, emotionally charged evening.
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