Imagine the storytelling of Angela Carter, the darkness of Chaucer in The Pardoner’s Tale, and a kind of sub-Nabokovian verbal dexterity that can shift fluidly between prose and verse, and come out with phrases like ‘a bundle of bare skin on the bearskin rug’, and you’ll have some idea of what The Head That Bears is like. Or at least, you will if you add masks, puppets of a bear and a girl (each operated by three actors), red and green lighting, and the setting and sounds of the forest.
It sounds weird, and in many ways it is, but the initial apprehension was soon dispelled by the growing strength of the performance. In Lewis Garvey’s play, Death (Ella Green), a cloaked and hooded figure speaking in an eerily androgynous vocoded tone, remained on stage, both physically and in the many splinters of dark humour protruding from the grain of the plot and dialogue. The suggestions and undertones in this complex work are too intricate to explain, especially after only one viewing, but the main frame of the narrative can be summarised.
A young girl, Ermine, finds a gold crown on a tree, and most of the play consists of the other three human characters, Pendrid (Lauren Milwain), her fiancée Golbus (Scott Younger) and her admirer Godwin (Pip Williams), endeavouring to steal the crown by persuading Ermine to come down from the tree. How do they try to get her down? By telling stories. After all, as Death at one point remarks, ‘everybody likes stories’.
So we see performed a vibrant series of hilarious yet farcically sinister tales, including that of a poisoned king, a murdered king who comes back to life in a charred and fire-breathing form, and the unlikely marriage between a beautiful human princess and the product of the union between a frog and a wolf, along with its disastrous results. Because the three characters also act out the parts in these internal narratives, moments of brilliant humour are achieved. Added to the crispness of the tales themselves, by the middle of the play the Drama Studio was filled with laughter and its accompanying tears.
Comments on the trios operating the puppets for Ermine (Charlotte Robinson, Marie Morris, Chloe Atkinson) and the Bear (Isabelle Kabban, Jessica Cole, Rosa Caines) are essential, the former for their superb mimicry of a child’s voice and manner, and the latter for their equally skilful impression of the sometimes bumbling, yet always deep-voiced beast. Of course, everyone involved with the production, from directors to costume and set designers, should be praised, but this would all just be another way of saying: ‘Watch it!’
The beginning felt a little unsteady, with the humour for me at least not quite working, but (awful pun on the way), you have to bear with it. Once the play had got underway, and especially by the end, when the Bear frightens off the trio who are trying to wrest the crown from Ermine, and Death continues to make insidious yet possibly sage comments, there was no doubt of its comic genius, its seriousness, and its craftsmanship. These were all well delivered by the cast, and this, if it doesn’t sound tautologous, is perhaps the only way of conveying what this play is. There’s no way of really describing it.
Early on, there is a discussion of necks, and how they bear heads. It’s clear that UEA is a neck solid enough to bear such a head as this dramatic work, and the head is fine enough to deservedly bear any crowns or laurel wreaths with which it may be garlanded.