Breathing theatrical life into Ted Hughes’ mythic Crow poems, Handspring Puppet Company combine puppetry with choreography in a dance theatre performance as part of the Greenwich + Docklands International Festival. DAO Editor Colin Hambrook looks on and weeps...
I fell in love with Hughes poetry when I was at school. He inhabits the flesh of the animals he writes about; creating anthropomorphic parallels to human attributes.
And Crow was always something else. My reading of it coincided with Thatcher coming to power in 1979. Crow - as a poetry collection scared the daylight from me, with its insistent quest for what… understanding, denouncing, regurgitating and fucking all the darker aspects of being human.
All the sparrows I grew up with in the London of my early childhood, seemed to all but disappear when the 1980s dawned - to be replaced by the crow and other corvids, contributing their ugly song to the inner landscape of my London imagination.
Handspring’s production captures that sense of a world reborn from blackness into blackness: the vague, drug-fuelled idealism of the sixties rebirthed into the realities of the Cold War.
And, of course the subtext of Crow was Sylvia Plath’s suicide seven years previous to publication in 1963… and mad, intense Ted struggled on, becoming more acclaimed and more guilty, as the years rolled on.
Even the choice of venue for Handspring’s adaptation - The Borough Hall, Greenwich - is a throwback to the kind of frumpy, inaccessible, metal flip-up chair, kind of venue that was the norm back then.
Despite an elaborate end / beginning of time, slag heap stage set, complete with enormous black-wing skewered back-drop for projection and the like; the company struggle, successfully I think, to build the hellish atmosphere – Crow – the king of tricksters, commands.
I particularly liked some of the puppets that weren’t strictly puppets – or were one huge crow puppet – ritually torn to pieces and rhythmically, danced by the performers, back into life, from the abstract.
Rendering poetry into a clear scripted narrative takes skill: especially a collection as dense in language as Ted Hughes, Crow. The story weaves in and out of several creation myths, but centres on Eden.
In Handsprings production God manages to choreograph Adam and Eve – but Crow is another matter. God is perhaps, a myth being dreamt by Crow.
Certainly the production recreates beautifully the idea that God (reproduced cleverly in the guise of performer Finn Caldwell) bit off more than he could chew if and when he invented the beast.
The element of the dance / telling of the Creation myth climaxes into the first couples final recognition of each other as separate, but a part of each other. It was a satisfying conclusion to an extremely intense hour and twenty minutes.
Ultimately Handspring convey the questioning in Ted Hughes poetry, of his role as a man; of the animal sexual drive; and the tragedy of being human.
“when the only face left in the world lay broken, and the trees closed forever, and the streets closed forever, crow had to start searching for something to eat.”
Sadly, the fall-out of such great art has followed the family through the generations with the suicide of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath's son Nicholas in 2009.
If you are moved by Ted Hughes dense, articulate, visceral poetry this dance / puppet adaptation will stay with you for a long while to come.
A Handspring Puppet Company UK production
By Ted Hughes
Date/Time: 18 June - 7 July, 8pm
21 June, 7pm
Matinees: 30 June & 7 July, 5pm
£18, £15 (conc. £15, £12)
Previews (18 - 20 June): £10
Location: The Borough Hall at Greenwich Dance, Greenwich, SE10 8RE
For details, please go to http://www.festival.org/whatson/2/crow/