Appearing as part of the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival, Handspring Puppet Company UK, which is behind the hit War Horse puppets, presents Crow by Ted Hughes. A long collection of poems spanning the life of Crow, Hughes’s poetic form is joined by Handspring’s unique take on puppetry and choreography by Ben Duke. The end result is an episodic piece that, through its fragmented form, explores Hughes’s Crow in a visually bleak way. With heavy biblical references to Adam and Eve, the disheveled form of Crow emerges from the blackness of the earth. Over the course of the 60 minute piece, the audience sees the limp form of Crow contemplate its existence and witness it morphing between man and crow, repeatedly questioning the thinking about death.
Whilst Crow could be a poetic and moving piece, the reality is quite different. Yes, Handspring Puppet Company UK is certainly skilled at the creation of puppets, but in realising the subtlety that underpins the work Director Mervyn Millar seems at a loss. Elements seem to collide or fracture within the mound of blackened earth on which Holly Waddington’s design focuses. There are moments of captured beauty, such as the playful interaction between Man and Crow, but underneath this there is little connection, and we feel little to nothing throughout the work. As separated elements, each of the dance, puppetry, poetry and design have merits, but as a whole performance, Crow fails.
The performers find themselves operating the various puppets before reciting lines of Hughes’s poem in their own voices, before bounding across the stage in physical dance. Whilst visually this has its moments, Crow feels far too disengaged as a whole to bring these elements together, especially when there are poorly choreographed exchanges of puppets between performers. It feels as if we are continually cheated of enjoying the puppetry work before it is forgotten and exchanged for something else.
Visually, Crow is evocative for the audience, creating a barren landscape with Hughes’s despairing poem booming through the auditorium. You can get lost within the poetic structure, but when it is replicated in dance through Duke’s choreography this seems lost, distracting almost. In terms of the puppetry work, there is no denying the creativity involved. The various methods used to portray this illusive character are clever, but too fragmented to hold the character throughout.
With such visual and visceral language, it is obvious why Millar was drawn to portray Hughes’s poem using puppetry. It’s just a shame that the varying elements are too weakly connected, leaving the audience more bemused than engaged. Crow has potential, perhaps looking at the relationship between the different modes of storytelling to create a cohesive narrative, but as it current stands it is a disappointment. Crow could be a sensational poetic masterpiece, but it seems Hughes’ line of ‘Crow is Crow without fail’ is not quite true, Crow certainly is too self indulged to not do anything but fail.
Crow is playing as part of the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival at The Borough Hall at Greenwich Dance until 7th July. For more information and tickets, see the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival website.