Review: The Heads by Blind Summit

THe HeadsThe Heads is a new piece of work by acclaimed puppet company, Blind Summit, and this was its first outing.  Although developed directly from a section of their previous work, The Table, The Heads is a departure from the narrative style and Blind Summit have to be applauded for taking risks and not sticking with a formula, especially one so successful.

The ‘action’ takes place within three framed windows which, at times, feel like an exhibition at an art gallery, and at others a broken glimpse into an abstract world. The frames themselves are individual and beautifully detailed, yet made very simply out of cardboard, suspended invisibly on a black wall and containing a black background, which gives them a wonderful dramatic quality and focuses the audience’s attention on them from the outset. Within these frames appear first some abstract shapes, and then three disembodied heads, which suggest portraiture but soon develop a life of their own.

The Heads is part performance art, part theatre and travels between the abstract and the narrative, sometimes seamlessly and sometimes less so. The show first explores the movement of the Heads and their relationship to their space in an abstract way, which nevertheless conveys a sense of narrative as they adopt and reflect movements, pause in their exploration to observe each other or travel across to share a window.

The Heads themselves are beautifully crafted, and their three-dimensional detail allows them to seem unique as the light hits them from minutely different angles. The skill of the puppeteers is breathtaking and I gleaned a great deal of satisfaction from the piece in simply watching and admiring their precision and utter commitment.

At times, the focus of the piece departs from the Heads themselves, which serves to break the intensity. The moment in which one of the Heads, carrying a bunch of flowers against a strong wind, which then blows the flowers across the landscape of picture frames, was wonderfully evocative and the movement so credible that it was hard to believe that the company hadn’t summoned a real storm against which to play.

One of the flowers then morphs into the tutu of a ballet dancer, who performs a solo en pointe to the strains of Swan Lake. It’s a beautiful transition which carries the audience along with it, although the dance itself seemed a little simplistic and I wished that the ballet dancer’s legs had articulated at the knees and ankles to allow us to admire the complexity of the movement, and which would also have cemented the audience’s sense of wonder.

There are times when the narrative gets stronger and more interesting, especially when the Heads are accompanied by sets of hands and, later, by a suggestion of a collar, shirt and tie or other clothing and these were among the more absorbing moments of the show. The hands are also beautifully realised and created to hold a variety of objects, including books with red covers – one of the few items of colour in an otherwise dramatically monochrome piece.

The books rising to the top of the frames and letters falling out of them, like the snow outside the theatre, was a stunning image. Forming words from these letters within the windows was another beautiful transition of ideas, and a very interesting development, but I wanted more from it. Sometimes the combinations of letters created words and sometimes they were a non-linguistic abstract which I found a little confusing. There seemed to be something of a hiatus as we struggled to glean a sense of purpose from the choices of combinations.

The clouds, which appear to mask the letters and go on to dance to bugle music, are wonderfully lighthearted and playful.  The section in which the acrobatics of abstract lines became the windows of a train, with the heads appearing within them as the population of the carriages, was joyous in the way in which it moved effortlessly from the abstract to the narrative. Moments such as this, in which the ideas flowed seamlessly from one theme to the next, were the most successful of the piece.

The show seemed a little too long, but nevertheless, The Heads is an impressive piece of work. A little rough around the edges, but hugely enjoyable and memorable. The skill and talent of the company is very much in evidence, both in the making of the puppets and in the operation of them. The imagery is exquisite, the lighting accomplished and the soundscape evocative. I very much look forward to seeing more work by the company in the future.

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