Features EssaysPerformance Published 16 August 2012

Why is a Crow like a Writing Desk?

Writer and puppeteer Gareth Martin talks about Handspring UK's debut show Crow, and how puppets and poets can find their common ground in riddles.
Gareth Martin

Adaptations have always been a messy business. Like any form of translation, the twinning of one particular language to another is as sure to leave gaps as it is to fill in the blanks. Despite this difficulty, we are surrounded by them; comics adapted into films, paintings atomised into songs,  and ancient myths crammed into videogames. Like one bizarre riddle after the another, this parade of second-hand stories dominates modern culture, requiring the audience to pick the results apart with a deft mind and a fully-stocked wikipedia entry close at hand. Theatre has been no stranger to this process, with a recent history marked by adaptations and translations, from oddities such as Spiderman the Musical to the near endless stream of shows inspired by Kafka’s Metamophosis. One of the most notable examples is Handspring’s War Horse, adapted from the novel by Michael Morpungo.  A blend of big budget theatre, precise puppetry and a flexible stage language, War Horse managed its transition from page to stage by making the most of the expansive images and language that puppetry enables. Now with a new UK arm, headed up by director Mervyn Miller, Handspring have taken on another challenging adaptation, this time twinning puppetry and poetry.

Crow, based on the Ted Hughes poetry collection of the same name, combines live poetry readings, wings full of black feathery puppets and fragments of modern dance. It is a show that feels like a riddle ready to be unravelled, with performers jerking across the stage in violent choreographies, accompanied by a delicate crow puppet, a smattering of religious imagery and a dissonant electronic score. It’s a show that actively resists creating a narrative from Hughes’ potent collection of alternate creation stories and pessimistic theology. It feels very much like an experiment in translation, handling the poems with what ranges from a feather light touch to a suffocating grip. In this experimentation, the show evokes a series of questions that concern its corbid puppets and borrowed words, as well as the adaptation as a whole. To  mark its passage into the troublesome parade of riddles that all adaptations seem to walk, let’s attempt an unravelling.

Question the first: How is a stage like a writing desk?

In Crow, the answer to this riddle lies in how it places on one what it takes from the other. Direct from the pen of Ted Hughes, via a wobbly music stand and a rather attractive Harper Collins paperback, the show’s performers read the poems aloud. Though in form, these staged readings may seem like a conventional way to stage poetry, it is their twinning with action that transforms them into performance.

In one striking scene, the poem Crow’s Theology is twinned with a live dissection. With the crow puppet in hand the performers pin him to an operating table. Gathering around they begin to take him apart piece by piece, removing each part and noting its qualities. They inspect the flex of his wings, the stretch of his legs, all the time accompanied by the poems’ own inquistions:

Crow realised God loved him –
Otherwise he would have dropped dead.
So that was proved.
Crow reclined, marvelling, on his heart-beat

It’s an elegant combination of words and action, relying on a loose connection between what the audience is hearing and seeing to devise a new, third meaning at the cross roads between the two. We are neither listening to Hughes’ insight, nor are we watching a puppet being disassembled. Instead, the connection between the stage and the writing desk is beginning to emerge. The pen dances across one, the puppet across the other, without the writing desk or the stage  possessing the meaning of these actions. The meaning floats in-between; the pregnant gap that lies somewhere between the nib and the page, or the performer and their space, or even, in this case, between the stage and the writing desk.

How is a stage like a writing desk? If Crow is to be believed, then both are the sites of their art, but neither are the sites of their meaning.

Question the second: How is a puppet like a poem?

With a menagerie of different corbids, from naturalistic renditions to fragmented monsters, Crow emphasises the connection between its puppets and its poems, but with the muscular wording of Hughes’ work never feeling like a comfortable fit for Hanspring’s almost-flimsy open frame figures, this riddle is never solved. Certainly in appearance, Crow’s delicate puppets could hardly feel more un-like Hughes’ racous poems. When turning to the staging, the answer is even more difficult to find.

As part of its experiments, Crow stages two of Hughes’ poems wholesale. Without the text present in any form Crow on The Beach and Crow by the Sea seem like oddly literal takes on the poetic content. Both take the form of the show’s most naturalistic crow puppet picking his way across an island- a polythene sea lapping at its shore, while the corpse of God lies spread-eagled in the sun. On the page these poems feature Hughes’ typically rich language; but in the show’s simplistic staging they feel distinctly prosaic. Here the puppet seems alien to the poem, its vapid glances at the tide conveying little of the poem’s powerful atmosphere:

His utmost gaping of brain in his tiny skull
Was just enough to wonder, about the sea,

What could be hurting so much?

Yet, as ever with the puppet, the blame falls not at its feet, but at those of its master. With the transformative qualities of the puppet ignored, its ability to actually be a crow on stage is limited at best. Puppets are very good at being two things at once, or even a whole network of images all gathered together, but when asked to carry the weight of an iconic work of literature in nothing but their fake breath and dead eyes, they will always fail.

This attempt to turn Hughes’ poetry back into prose before its staging may be flawed, but with a little digging can offer the answer to our riddle. In this case, the poem resists the normalising influence of being staged as prose, just as the puppet resists being cast as a prosaic object. Together they sabotage this scene from within, unhappy to simply remain naturalistic constructs.

How is a puppet like a poem? Both contain a multiplicity of meanings, but neither are particularily good at being simply a crow on a beach.

Question the third: Why is a crow like a writing desk?

So we come to the crux of the piece. We know that, in many ways, the crow and the writing desk are alike- but why should they be so? Isn’t it enough that the writing desk remains itself, ink-stained and poetic, and the crow occupies its own stage, struting around on wiry legs?

Crow, like any adaptation, forces the two together, ripping the words from Hughes’ writing desk, twinning them with its own puppet crows, and then kicking them out onto the stage. Unlike many other adaptations, however, it does manage to give us a reason for this pairing. Though the show may struggle to find a comfortable unison between the two, it has chosen a good pairing in the puppet and the poem. Both revel in complex imagery and multiple layers of meaning, and both project this meaning outwards, requiring the catalyst of an audiences’ gaze to fire them into action. The fact that Crow is a distinctly awkward show feels like a proof of its equal negotion between its source material and its form.

Why is a crow like a writing desk?

The riddle mirrors the adaptation; both create meaning by implying a connection, without a true connection needing to be there at all.

Crow by Handspring Puppet Company UK premiered at the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival 2012 on the 18th June. Crow was part of London 2012 Festival. For more information visit the Festival website.