Handspring Puppet Company UK
The Borough Hall at Greenwich Dance, London
Amazingly ambitious and avidly awaited this is the first production from the British sister company of Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler's South African Handspring Puppets, creators of the puppets for the National Theatre's War Horse and many other shows as well as their own productions. The new company, formed from people who worked with them here, creates a work based on Ted Hughes's collection of poems that presented Crow as being continually recreated by a God who is trying to get his creation right.
Handspring UK breaks fresh ground here in creating a piece of dance theatre, director Mervyn Miller working in collaboration with choreographer Ben Duke. Its music is composed by Leafcutter John and design is by Holly Waddington with the puppets themselves designed by Ed Dimbleby and Mervyn Miller. I give you the creatives first because this is an extremely complex work in which everything must come together. I think that in the rehearsal room it probably did but in performance it just did not work for me.
That is certainly not the fault of the multi-tasked performers who have to dance, act and deliver the verse as well as operate the puppets, and its failure may be partly due to the fact that I was a long way from the stage. Those in close proximity may have been able to experience things I didn't.
The major problem seemed to be the venue and the lighting, but since this was a work commissioned by the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival (its first ever indoor show) and London 2012 Festival it surely should be tailor-made to fit it. The problem was that most of the time I simply could not see what the crow puppets were doing. Surrounded by the pale arms and lighter clothing of the puppeteers, the black shapes of the smaller puppets were a blur. As they became large, they still tended to merge with the background for this set seemed to have no backlight.
One of the first rules of puppetry I would have thought is that you establish the puppet and its persona. Not easy when you cannot even see it! Close up in a well-lit rehearsal room and from the front few rows, what I gather were extremely complex smaller puppets may well have been quite magical; I leave that for those close enough to judge. Black has never been the easiest colour to light but that is something you know from the start and have to take into account and if a black Crow is at the heart of your production you must build everything around that.
Since the production is being promoted quoting the rave reviews for the puppetry in War Horse it is the puppetry which will be bringing in most of the punters and on that score this is a huge disappointment. Although things get better as Crow gets larger its most effective moment is when a crow-headed human figure removes his head, hands it back to God and all the humans seem to take on the character of Crow, and there is a startling moment of shadow puppetry and some effective projected flight silhouettes.
The passages of verse (not the full text) are delivered by microphone from one side of the stage, often well spoken but sometimes so fragmented that the through thought is lost. Both score and choreography have primal echoes of Creation du Monde and Sacre de Printemps, entirely appropriate, though the performers do sometimes look like a tribe of zombies advancing across the mound that forms the setting. A violent duet in which Eve and Adam discover sexual passion provides a particularly exciting sequence, full marks to the performers.
Finn Caldwell is the Odin-like creator and the other performers: Elizabeth Barker, Gemma Brockis, Don Czapski, Al Nedjari and Lucia Tong give everything energy and dedication but for me this was Hamlet without the Prince. I never saw the creature you see in the accompanying photograph.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton