Birdy takes no prisoners, right from the opening shots. A low-lit stage. A drone. The sounds of war. Specifically, the sounds of 20th century-style war – buzzing plane engines, Hurricanes and Spitfires, lobbed grenades – mixing with the universal and eternal sounds of war: the shouts and cries of confused voices, the groans and gasps of wounded bodies. One of these bodies is lowered from on high, a prone, planked figure in camouflage uniform. Uncoupled, he slumps to the ground. But once he flew, and he dreams of flying again, and perhaps one day he will fly once again…
This is how we first meet Birdy. War-wounded, traumatised, he is transferred to a military psychiatric unit, where we see him squatting on his haunches, hands behind him with elbows sticking out to the side, head jutting forward – a bird caught in the headlights, frozen with fear (all power to performer Joe Garcia, who spends a lot of his time onstage in this awkward position – although he does also get to swing out on the bungee, and to climb and coil around ropes).
His childhood friend Al – not even his mother calls him Alfonso, although Dr Weiss, the military doctor, does – is drafted in to help. Wounded himself, we see him mostly with his head and face bandaged, turning him into a slightly spooky masked character. ‘Come on Birdy, cut it out!’ he urges ‘I know you’re not a bird… Hitler is dead. Mussolini is dead. The war’s over.’
In the effort to bring Birdy back to reality – whatever that might be – Al takes him (and us) on a journey exploring their shared adolescence in Atlantic City, where it is ‘easy to steal a bike’, and where there are trees to climb and tree-houses to build: Al a typical all-American boy, into biking and ball-sports, a hit with the girls; Birdy, by contrast, is an odd-bod loner into swimming (which he calls flying) and birds – the feathered variety. ‘Blue bars, red checks, white kings – no fancy birds, none of that crap’ says Al (Chris Towner-Jones), as he carries a half-dozen or so pretty white birdcages on to the stage, placing them next to the also-white metal hospital cot. (He knows about birds for sure, but for Al, the pigeon lofts and tree houses are childish games, long left behind.) Meanwhile, Birdy is dreaming of an elusive, beautiful canary. Although, ostensibly, the question we are being asked to consider is ‘What can make Birdy better?’ there is, running underneath, a metaphysical investigation into how each human being experiences reality in a different way; how ‘normality’ in a mad world could be a disadvantage rather than an advantage; and how escapism is as sane a choice as any in a world that attempts to suppress the human spirit. From a difficult childhood and adolescence, through to his traumatising war experiences, Birdy has found a way to deal with the madness around him: find comfort in non-human creatures, pursue your dreams, and fly above the madness like a bird.
The dramaturgical structure of the piece is thus set up: we alternate between scenes in the hospital and scenes from the boys’ past – with the added twist of a dreamscape vaudevillian cabaret in which dancing bears juggle what we are told are balls of shit, an androgynous creature twirls on a trapeze, and a beautiful canary-girl twists and tumbles on vibrant yellow silks. In its mix of theatre and vaudevillian forms in the telling of the traumas of war, there are echoes of both Brecht and Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop.
The easy directorial decision would have been to keep the circus tricks and turns within the dreamscape scenes – but writers/directors Catrin Osborne and Mitch Mitchelson aim higher, creating an integrated and challenging piece of circus-theatre. The circus is fully worked into the piece, making for a truly total theatre in which spoken text (live and voice-over), physicality, visual imagery, lighting, and original composed music/soundscape are all summoned at the service of the story.
As is the norm in the post-Complicite physical and devised theatre world, all scene changing is done by the performers, in full view of the audience. The hospital bed is trundled on and off by Al and the doctors. The trapezes, silks and corde lisse ropes (which all have a logical place in the piece, being sometimes material representation of the childhood games, at other times belonging to the dream-logic of Birdy’s inner life) are unfurled by performer-rigger Claire Crook, who takes on a host of characters, from Birdy’s grumpy Mrs Mop mother (stealer of the neighbourhood kids’ baseballs), to hospital orderly, to gawky teenage girl. It’s a tough call, integrating rigging into a show with theatrical logic, and some of these characters and transition moments work better than others. The Mrs Mop character is a rather too stereotyped and clownish housewife for my taste – she looks like a young woman impersonating an older woman, and it doesn’t sit easily on her. On the other hand, she’s a brilliant teenage girl, hooping in a day-dreamy deadpan mode to the side of the stage, ignoring the boys on bikes and bungees.
In fact, all of the cast (other than our main two characters, Birdy and Al) multi-task, taking on a number of characters and providing a chorus of soldiers or doctors. Sarah Bebe Holmes is superb – she’s a strong and elegant aerialist and physical actor, moving as easily from silks to Chinese Pole as she moves from being the elusive and beautiful Canary Girl of Birdy’s dreams to the bird-loving Mrs Prevost (his childhood neighbour and ally) chasing the cats away from her precious birdcages – the performer breaking the fourth wall to cast us all as cats that she shoos and scolds. There are other moments when the wall tumbles: Matt Devereaux does a good job doubling as both Dr Weiss and as a circus ringmaster and musician, tootling a swing-dance tune on a clarinet or inviting us into the action. But although this role is set up early in the piece, and returned to later, it would have been good to have it used more often throughout to invite us in – there are long swathes when as audience we move into a more traditional behind-the-wall relationship with the stage action.
An important element of the work is the excellent soundscape – a mix of recordings of original compositions by Pete Helmer and Tina Grace (she of the gorgeous, breathy voice featured on many of Nitin Sawney’s recordings); dashes of live song and music from the cast; and a cleverly montaged mix of spoken word texts, sampled sounds (chirping birds, droning planes, beeping submarines), Eno-esque electronics, screeching strings, and mellow guitars and saxes. Really, a very beautiful piece of audio work. I’m not totally convinced that the musician-technician needs to be placed where he is onstage – I understand the directors’ desire to have nothing hidden, but perhaps the laptop-bound musician could have been placed to the side rather than upstage, where his desk dominates the audience’s eye without really adding anything to the sceneography of the piece.
There are strong performances from all the cast, who rise to the many and various artistic and logistic challenges of so complex a show with great aplomb, ably holding the balance between physical action, music and spoken word. My only gripe is the adopted American accents. Everyone’s take on this is slightly different, and the result is a kind of transatlantic mulch that doesn’t convince, and which seems sometimes to restrain the actors. I haven’t read William Wharton’s Birdy novel, nor seen the acclaimed film adaptation by Alan Parker, but as this isn’t a naturalistic retelling, accents don’t seem strictly necessarily. It seems to be a pretty universal tale that doesn’t need to be sited quite so specifically, but if the creative team do want to retain the references to the original setting, I’m sure we could believe that we are in Atlantic City in Birdy in much the same way that we believe we are in Ancient Rome in Julius Caesar, or Andalusia in Blood Wedding, without the need of accents. Also to note here that despite the complexity of the story, not being familiar with the original text didn’t feel a disadvantage – which is the sign of a good adaptation. It has inspired me to read Wharton’s novel, which was helpfully on sale in the theatre foyer: it was rather touching to see the company selling novels after the show, rather than souvenir T-shirts…
Birds are often employed as subject or theme in circus-theatre for pretty obvious reasons – bird stories being something of a gift to aerialists. This particular little Birdy sets an example of how circus can be employed within theatre as something more than a tired metaphor. The show here at Connaught Theatre in Worthing is the last date in the current tour, but hopefully there is more to come: this is an ambitious piece that deserves to be supported in further development, and to be more widely seen; proof (to those who don’t already know it) that circus can be harnessed to theatre in the telling of complex and disturbing stories.
Photo: Hannah Edy