Birdland, Simon Stephens, Royal Court Theatre

When I arrived at the Royal Court Theatre for the matinee of Pests (https://dramaqueensreview.com/2014/04/28/), an autograph-hunting crowd thronged the stage door. I was too out of the TV loop to immediately identify the attraction: the actor Andrew Scott (Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes series) who has the leading role as rock-star Paul in Simon Stephens’ Birdland. Given the enthusiasm I witnessed at the stage door, I thought I was in for a theatrical treat having booked for an evening performance of the play. In the event, Birdland failed to fly either in terms of the play itself or (albeit it to a lesser extent) its star attraction.

The play works off the familiar conceit of a millionaire rock-star losing touch with reality. A life spent in luxury hotel rooms whilst flying around the world on multiple gigs (the play opens on a Moscow tour), Paul is no longer grounded in the ordinary, the everyday. Whatever he wants he can buy, whether it is a juicy peach or a helicopter. That he has lost his moral compass becomes apparent as he sleeps with his best buddy’s girlfriend to prove the point that she can’t be trusted. The girlfriend’s subsequent suicidal leap from the hotel rooftop leaves Paul not feeling blameworthy but ‘fascinated’. High on cocaine rather stricken down with guilt, he continues the celebrity lifestyle and fails to feel for or to find genuine connections with others. The closest he comes to this is in a reunion with his father who needs to borrow a thousand pounds, but here too the capacity to feel is not all it should be; dad leaves seemingly duped by the idea that his son has not really changed at all. Downfall comes in the form of a rape charge from an under-aged girl; seemingly Paul was set-up by his revenge-seeking, erstwhile best friend. We learn that he probably won’t go to prison, but stay imprisoned in the hell of his own life-in-the-fast-lane-making. Bereft of money (it turns out he doesn’t actually have the millions in the bank but rather is contractually in debt to all and sundry) and friends, the singer is left to carry on with his soulless career.

Given the thematic centrality of the singer’s divorce from reality, there was ample opportunity for this play to hit a contemporary nerve – as an allegoric take on today’s bankers and politicians responsible for the economic recession that hurts and hits millions of everyday, ordinary folk, but from which they remain immune both on a material and humanitarian level. But it never packed that political punch. Perhaps I was too alienated by the idea of a female suicide as a vehicle for exploring the disintegration of male bonding to have a real feeling for what Stephens was trying to convey through his self-destructing star. Yet in other ways the dramatic writing is itself unclear; it lacks the kind of detail about the singer, a fleshing out of where he came from or what his music stands for, for us to care about this non-caring, anti-hero.

Episodically composed as a series of downwards spiralling encounters between Paul and those he meets in hotel lobbies, suites or bars, the play is mostly composed of realist dialogue – this despite Stephens’ self-confessed antipathy to the realism that he laments occupies an all too prominent position in British Theatre (http://www.theatertreffen-blog.de/tt11/artikel-zu/stueckemarkt/skydiving-blindfolded/ ). In production Birdland did have a stylised edge but this was down to director Carrie Cracknell aided by designer Ian MacNeil. In contrast to the realist register of Stephens’ dramatic text, Cracknell opted for a presentational style (yet another row of Forced Ents-like blue chairs for the cast to take up their various, multi-role playing positions), while McNeil’s abstractly conceived hotel setting provided a constant backdrop to and evocation of the singer’s soulless mindset (towards the close, darkly lit water floods the front and sides of the set and our anti-hero douses himself in black filth).

Occasional muffled and muffed lines aside, the cast proved a relatively strong ensemble working hard to bring the play alive. As to Andrew Scott fans, the rapturous applause at the end of the performance suggested they weren’t disappointed. I, on the other hand, have since consoled myself by listening to the Patti Smith track that gave the play its title. Now that I can recommend:

Elaine

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12 thoughts on “Birdland, Simon Stephens, Royal Court Theatre

  1. Thanks for this review, Elaine; I had exactly the same reaction to the play when I saw it last Wednesday. I was particularly appalled at Marnie’s suicide, which struck me as coming completely out of the blue, and with no purpose other than as a retrograde vehicle for Paul’s further narrative. It’s 2014 – we’re still killing off young women so the play can begin? Really?

    If you haven’t seen it, check out Melissa Poll’s (I think spot-on) review of this issue in relation to the play here: http://www.britishtheatreguide.info/features/what-about-the-birds-96.

    Best!

    • Agreed! Have just finished a post on A Taste of Honey’ and couldn’t resist including one more note of feminist outrage about Birdland

    • Thanks and thanks, Elaine! I sense from Melissa that she’s received a fair amount of backlash against her perspective on the piece, something we talked about when she chimed in on my review of A View from the Bridge. Strong feminist review(er)s need to support one another right now (as ever!), I’d say. Count me in.

  2. A great question. What about creating a reviewing hub that pulls in multiple voices – a place we all share ownership of, but which identifies as a specifically UK-based home for feminist spectators? It might also be a place we encourage students to post – and perhaps use as part of course labour. Or – am I being naive? Does such a place already exist?

  3. Hi Elaine and Kim.
    Thanks for your support! As Kim noted, there was a significant reaction to my piece when Karen Fricker posted it on FB, which could’ve elicited a more productive discussion had it not been written in such an angry and defensive tone. As I mentioned in my Birdland post, I’m concerned that other theatre-goers/critics aren’t speaking up about sexism and/or misogyny in London theatre as they’d rather not find themselves at the centre of such an attack. I’m all for creating a space where strong, feminist spectators can speak out knowing there’s a supportive community behind them. Like you, Kim, I’m not sure what’s out there at present.

  4. I’m not aware of there being such a forum – interestingly I also felt under pressure writing that post – feeling that mine was a minority view – pleased to find I’m in such good company … I do want to think more about the idea of a feminist-theatre-speak-out – might email when I’ve had change to have a ponder, best E.

  5. Hi Elaine, Kim, Melissa (et al)
    This is a great dialogue. Thanks for the thoughtful review, Elaine. I’ve not seen Birdland nor View from the Bridge but have followed the dialogue around them and done my best to support the questions that critics such as yourselves have been asking. The notion of a hub for feminist online commentary on contemporary theatre is a great one – though I can’t speak for her I suspect Jill Dolan would agree. I did a lot of work with my students this year surveying the theatre critical blogosphere and I don’t think such a place yet exists. This is something me might discuss in and around the upcoming Canadian Association of Theatre Research panel on blogging that Melissa and I are participating in, and I believe Kim is attending (we’ll miss you, Elaine!). One of the organizers of the panel, Michelle MacArthur, recently wrote an excellent piece about feminist theatre blogging in Theatre Research in Canada. There is a ball rolling here… !

    • Sigh – won’t be at CATR, alas! Feel free to ventriloquize me, Karen. And yes, read Michelle’s piece – very helpful. Elaine, let’s keep pondering and maybe talk around IFTR time. Karen, are you coming to IFTR?

  6. Hi Karen, Elaine and Kim,
    Karen, thanks for chiming in. I look forward to discussing blogging with you at CATR!
    Elaine and Kim, I’m in Canada for the summer but will be back in the UK this autumn in time for TaPRA. I’d be eager to help you keep the ball rolling on a much-needed space for feminist theatre blogging.

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