Sunday 08. July 2012
CROW by Handspring Puppet Company, London, 2012

CROW by Handspring Puppet Company, London, 2012

Scenes from CROW by Handspring Puppet Company, London, 2012, photo © Simon Annand

Scenes from CROW by Handspring Puppet Company, London, 2012, photo © Simon Annand

Scenes from CROW by Handspring Puppet Company, London, 2012, photo © Simon Annand

Scenes from CROW by Handspring Puppet Company, London, 2012, photo © Simon Annand

Scenes from CROW by Handspring Puppet Company, London, 2012, photo © Simon Annand

Scenes from CROW by Handspring Puppet Company, London, 2012, photo © Simon Annand

Scenes from CROW by Handspring Puppet Company, London, 2012, photo © Simon Annand

Scenes from CROW by Handspring Puppet Company, London, 2012, photo © Simon Annand

Scenes from CROW by Handspring Puppet Company, London, 2012, photo © Simon Annand

Scenes from CROW by Handspring Puppet Company, London, 2012, photo © Simon Annand

Scenes from CROW by Handspring Puppet Company, London, 2012, photo © Simon Annand

Scenes from CROW by Handspring Puppet Company, London, 2012, photo © Simon Annand

Scenes from CROW by Handspring Puppet Company, London, 2012, photo © Simon Annand

Scenes from CROW by Handspring Puppet Company, London, 2012, photo © Simon Annand

Mervyn Millar, director of Handspring's CROW; photo © Simon Annand

Mervyn Millar, director of Handspring's CROW; photo © Simon Annand; photos used with kind permission of Kean | Lanyon (www.keanlanyon.com)

Crow by the Handspring Puppet Company

A Review by Steven Barfield

Crow, Co-commissioned by the Royal Borough of Greenwich and London 2012 Festival. Supported by Greenwich Theatre and National Theatre. Part of Greenwich+Docklands International Festival 2012. Borough Hall, Greenwich dance. Thu 21 June - Sat 7 July 2012

This is unfortunately less a crow and more of a turkey. I came out distinctly underwhelmed and disappointed. Another one of the ambitious events created as part of the Cultural Olympiad for London 2012 it suffers from similar problems to that of Wildwork’s/ BAC’s much hyped Babel in Caledonian Park. A collaboration by individually very interesting talents and a bold idea on paper doesn’t necessarily work in practice and Crow manages to be rather less than the sum of its individual parts.

I can see how the idea of using Handspring’s normally wonderful puppetry to tell the story of Ted Hughes poem cycle Crow looked like a good strategy to director Mervyn Millar at a meeting, but Hughes’ work isn’t a linear, realist fiction like War Horse, animal fabula or traditional myth.  A largely unfinished collection of poems, where variation of form and metre is just as important as differences of perspective; Hughes’ Crow poems set real challenges from the perspective of someone attempting to translate the work into different media . There is also a real danger when using poetry as the basis of multi-media work of distracting from the poems themselves, as happens much of the time in this production.

Crow himself may be a folkloric, ambivalent, shamanic animal ‘trickster’ figure and also something of an autochthonous, fertility symbol representing human optimism, according to Hughes, but he isn’t a simple trickster like Brer Rabbit or Ananse the Spider. Crow’s animalness tends to question what we men by our humanness in the way that most stories of animal tricksters do not  The poetry is deliberately raw, experimental fractured and difficult, (it is an unfinished and fragmentary sequence),  its use of myth subject to strong reinvention, its reworking of folklore ambiguous and sometimes deliberately obscure and it forcefully yokes together primitiveness and modernity: therefore it is not the kind of straightforward, narrative material that easily lends itself to dramatization. Its character is not just fantastic, but designed to make us rethink our ‘human’ world by means of complex linguistic and poetic strategies. Even if the puppets had managed to live up to the strangeness of the poetry and repeated the uncanny sublimity of those used in War Horse (by Nick Stafford, adapted from Michael Morpurgo’s novel), or the daemons in the stage version of His Dark Materials (adapted Nicholas Wright from the novel by Philip Pullman), then it might still not have worked because Crow is as much a forceful idea as an entity; sadly these weren’t very interesting puppets at all, although they did catch the crow’s bobbing, darting head movements down to a tee.

Adding human performers/ dancers was a further mistake as it wasn’t clear whether this was meant to be dance, if so it seemed often clumsy, clichéd and amateur in terms of its choreography by Lost Dog’s Ben Duke and never made either striking visual images or rhythms worth contemplating.  Or was it mimetic, physical action, in effect mime telling some kind of literal story of the history the world based on the poems, while interacting with the Crow puppets and not attempting to the abstraction typical of dance?  There was much martial arts style grunting and chasing around the stage’s looming earth mound which I suppose suggested ‘primitiveness’: but there are other ways to do this as shown a long time ago by Stravinsky’s and Nijinsky’s Rites of Spring for the Ballets Russes (1913). The performers work though tended to distract from the puppets and vice versa; unlike it other work by Handspring the puppeteers did not successfully fade into the background and one was conscious of their manipulation of the various crow puppets. Sadly, this was a lost opportunity to create a dance that interpreted the strange and unsettling voice of Crow, and while I thought the individual performers/ puppeteers (Elizabeth Barker, Gemma Brockis, Finn Caldwell, Dom Czapski, Al Nedjari, Lucia Tong) were all very proficient and capable dancers and puppeteers, the overall effect was something a mess.   

A rather dull electronic, sampled and ambient score by composer Leafcutter John (whose nom de plume is presumably from the species of ant), simply added to Crow’s problems, as it’s elevator-music like qualities managed to both distract and irritate.  I didn’t feel it had anything useful or interesting to add to Hughes’ poetry and if it was supporting the dancers, then a score more human and melodic might have served as a better backdrop for the performers’ world; counterpointing the non-human world of Crow. Though it seemed the choreography more or less ignored the score as far as I could tell. As a buildings-based piece (it would have perhaps worked better outside at some Beltan festival, as there is certainly something pagan, ritualistic and animal about Hughes’ Crow poems), the set by Holly Waddington  created a huge, artificial  muddy mound in the theatre itself suggesting Crow’s visceral, instinctual world.

There were in the end too many things going on in the production and none of these really seemed to be connected or articulated together except at a rather superficial level and director Mervyn Millar provided no over-riding sense of how this helped us to interpret Hughes’ poems or served to embody them on stage. Was it all meant simply as a kind of illustration of the poems’ content, in which case it left little to our imagination and yet Hughes poetry demands reader’s active imagination?  Sometimes I wasn’t even sure if the production really understood what kind of poems they were, or, if everyone understood them differently (programme notes give this impression as well.).

Working with such material one often has to be aware that less is more and subtlety can be the best policy. Jericho House’s recent Old Earth at the Spitalfield’s music festival (2012), placed some of Samuel Beckett’s prose texts from Fizzles within a musical score for voices by Alec Roth and worked splendidly. The music never distracted from Beckett’s words, but was strong enough in its own right to help establish a narrative and bring out certain qualities in the texts. There could be a way to do something similar with Hughes’ poetry, but this production isn’t it. A fellow audience member afterwards remarked that shadow puppetry, no dancers/performer and a good score could have been far more successful as a setting and I’d agree. At the moment this confused production fails to evoke Crow’s often startled wonder at the mysterious world he finds himself in and his peculiar interaction with human beings, or and what is even more important to make us as an audience think about our own human history and culture through Crow’s temporarily different, uncanny eyes.