Wednesday evening saw my return trip to Simon Stephens’ Birdland, Every few months, I have a play or production that ignites the imagination and thus repeat viewings are inevitable. Furthermore, this is the only way to fully experience theatre: once is often a necessity but it’s not a preference. Productions are living things, if it’s impractical to be there every night, it doesn’t mean they stay still without our presence (professional critics often seem to forget that).
It’s fun trying to decipher what changed with time (There will be SPOILERS for the rest of the post, so please don’t read if you don’t want to be spoiled): Paul felt more deliberately cruel than in the previous performance. Louis – the superfan – is now holding a magnifying glass when he is meeting Paul. At one point David (the manager) puts drops to Paul’s eyes. At the same time, one of the actresses is at the roof and dropping marbles on a metal bowl held by another actress standing below, thus mimicking the eye-dropping action (and creating a loud clanking sound). On Wednesday night, the actress missed the bowl and the marble rolled all the way to the front of the stage and sank in the water. Some things are the same but now I am able to focus on them differently: I love how the set exposes the backstage area all the way to the exterior wall. When Johnny leaves through the fire escape, he exits directly into the street.
The post show talk was lovely and intimate: as the stage is by this point flooded, we were moved to third row and back and cast and creative team sat on high chairs in front of the stage. In fact it was a real treat seeing the stage being cleaned up during the Q&A. The backstage lights were flooding the space and suddenly the stage – that was so many things barely ten minutes before – feels empty and nondescript. In addition to director Carrie Cracknell and writer Simon Stephens, Alex Price and Yolanda Kettle were the most talkative. Alex Price is quick with a quip and has a glint in his eye, Yolamda Kettle is very enthusiastic. Andrew Scott was participating but was more reticent.
Simon Stephens said Birdland is partly inspired by Bertol Brecht’s Baal, a play he doesn’t understand fully – he always writes best what he doesn’t understand. He is often asked whether a particular band is at the heart of the play, he says no, although he repeatedly watched two films, a Rolling Stones bootleg documentary (he didn’t want to say the title as it’s very rude but Alex Price called “Cocksucker Blues” from across the room) and another one about the first big Radiohead tour. He was asked about Birdland and his other recent play Blindsided both having a moat as part of the design. He said it’s pure coincidence, he wasn’t that specific in the stage directions. He is less and less interested in writing detailed stage directions and thus restricting the director’s, designer’s and actors’ input.
Carrie Cracknell said that her non-naturalistic approach was all based on the first stage direction of the play, which she paraphrased “there should be no depiction of change of time and space from scene to scene”. In their previous collaboration on A Doll’s House, they had a very naturalistic approach and it was great to work at the opposite direction, depicting the trap Paul lives in, where nothing is quite real. She was asked whether she ever lets go of a production, and she reluctantly said “you have to”, but she can never go to sleep if she doesn’t read the stage management report for the evening, especially since the reports for Birdland are evocative and rich in detail about the audience’s reaction. She talked about how a production changes over time: she said sometimes a production starts to feel thinner and actors lose their way over the course of the run. With Birdland, she hardly has any notes to give as the cast make it a richer experience every time.
Andrew Scott was asked whether the play has echoes with his own life, and that created a certain amount of mirth and teasing as if he had started misbehaving like Paul. The serious response was yes, it does and he made a general point about famous people being bullied by the media and that is deemed acceptable. Commenting on previews and what has changed since then, he said there are differences but he ‘d rather not consciously know what they are and the audience every night plays a massive role in shaping the performance. This is the great thing with theatre, you can change, improve, redo, it’s like plasticine – he joked that in film he suffers from post-take trauma, the panic of not being able to change what he has done.
The actors were asked whether they hate aspects of their characters. Yolanda Kettle said Marnie is a bit annoying but it’s all human nature and she recognises behaviours she has regretted in herself. Alex Price said, in audition, he told the director he doesn’t get Paul and his behaviour and it’s a huge testament to Andrew Scott’s talent that we care about Paul at all.
Based on Simon Stephens’ playtext directions, they were initially going to be gender blind in allocating roles and Alex Price was going to play Nicola (the fourteen year old girl who sleeps with Paul). Also, the playtext has another scene between Johnny and Paul, but that was cut in rehearsal. Simon Stephens said he liked the initiative they took in shaping the play but he didn’t know why they cut it. Alex Price said it was his idea but now he regrets. On the other hand, with the scene cut, he finishes early so he is out the fire escape and straight to the pub. There was consensus cutting this scene gives the encounter between Paul and Johnny in the streets of Paris resonance, finality and power (without a doubt, one of my favourite moments in the play). As it’s still in the playtext, other productions might keep it and someone joked in Germany they will be performing the scene on a loop.
On Saturday evening, I revisited Royal Court for the Big Idea event: professor Angie Hobbs talking about “Plato on Fame and Status” and Chris Thorpe’s short play “You ‘Re Not As Tall As You Look”. Both were consistently interesting with the play a sharp observational riff on reality (its presence and its absence), celebrity and the intersection with the fictional world. Somehow it was all real and then it wasn’t. It’s worth mentioning that the play was performed by Nikki Amuka-Bird with the help of Ryan Govin, who works at the Royal Court box office. To my knowledge, this is the first time Royal Court back office staff took to the stage since the rehearsed reading of The Hotel Play in 2009, when a pre-fame Benedict Cumberbatch appeared shirtless (somehow worth mentioning).