There are few playwrights whose output is as prodigious as Simon Stephens; since 2010 he is credited against 15 works either as writer or adapter. He has built a fertile partnership with Katie Mitchell leading to a new translation of The Cherry Orchard arriving at the Young Vic in the autumn and, like Mitchell, he is highly feted abroad; working with Patrice Chéreau and Estonia’s Theatre NO99 on audience-challenging work that utilise multiple levels of abstraction and woozy dreamscapes to threaten the entire disintegration of narrative. However he is proved himself equally adept at producing crowd-pleasing adaptations and enjoyed great success with Mark Haddon’s A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night–time and his translation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.
Around Stephens’ swirls this air of the unknown, which makes any new work by him an enticing proposition. However this inability to pigeon-hole him has also led to him becoming one of Britain’s most divisive playwrights and Birdland is no exception to this. What’s On Stage has pulled together how it has split the major newspapers, the blogging world has been generally united in criticism and it has been left to the always insightful Matt Trueman to attempt a passionate and cogent defence of the play.
Having been intrigued by Three Kingdoms and its radical Lynchian take on cross-border crime drama – possibly the only bright spot of the otherwise dire attempt to produce a theatrical ‘cultural Olympiad’ – Civilian Theatre has always been prepared to give Stephens a degree of slack. However it is troubling that flaws evident in Three Kingdoms crop up again in Birdland.
Three Kingdoms portrayal of female characters and sexual violence came very close to glorification rather than dispassionate reportage and whilst the work of multiple hands in the authorship of the piece made it hard to assign responsibility, it is depressing to see that three years later Stephens’ female characters remain ciphers for his fascination with charismatic men.
His work also remains far too long, Three Kingdoms was a punishing three hours whilst Birdland clocks in at an interval-less 110 minutes. It is slickly directed by Carrie Cracknall and the plot bounces along but as Andrew Scott’s rockstar Paul ends up in yet another European city, you do wonder if they could have shortened this endless tour by just a little.
It is down to the magnetic and compelling performance by Andrew Scott that the evening did not feel even longer. Whilst many of the audience may be drawn to this by his work in Sherlock (and one can see echoes of Moriarty in Scott’s dangerously charismatic Paul), he is no novice to the stage and took the lead in the (unfortunately woeful) Emperor and Galilean at the National. The snippet of Angels in America, shown as part of the National Theatre’s 50th birthday celebrations, also provided a chance to see an unusually intelligent and sensitive actor at work.
He turns Paul, on the surface a rather two-dimensional rockstar damaged by the sudden accumulation of wealth and fame, into a living creation. Scott finds a kernel of humanity within Paul’s increasingly disaffected personality; that part of his soul that led him to create the music that first brought him to people’s attention and which he is in the systematic process of destroying.
Indeed one of the earliest, and best, conversations in the play occurs between Paul and a music journalist who dares to critique his current album. Paul uses a facile argument to suggest that because more people have bought it, it can only mean it is better than his old work, and this leads directly to a scene in a Russian restaurant beloved by the nouveau-riche where he ostentatiously announces the menu and attempts to break outrageous social interactions down to a financial value. This scene showcases the best of Stephens; Moscow is a knowingly smart setting as it is city where the rich prize the pursuit of money in its own right rather than as a stepping stone to what you really want. Within this city Paul’s increasing lack of value is something that will be celebrated rather than lost.
After this smart and engaging opening, and despite fine performances across the cast, the play begins to lose itself. Birdland may belong to Scott but Alex Price is excellent as the long-suffering Johnny and his betrayal at Paul’s hand is a moment of quiet anguish that will eventually lead to the play’s best scene as their long relationship finally breaks down on the street of Paris.
Daniel Cerqueira’s has multiple roles but manages to find some depth within them and brings them above the level of mere caricature (however the arm-mounted iPad may have been a step to far), whilst Yolanda Kettle is convincing as Marnie, an innocent gone astray – the rich girl from a rich family fatally out-manoeuvred by the far more street-savvy Paul.
Eventually though the lumbering pointlessness of Birdland threatens to drown them all in the black inky water that slowly envelops the stage. The problem is that for all of Scott’s talents – and it is true that you are on tenterhooks to see what he will do next – Stephens’ does not give us enough reasons to care. There is something about his roots and an ingrained fear of returning to his old, working-class life, drawn out in a tender and affecting scene between Paul and his father, but this is a hoary old trope to be relying on.
Indeed it is a sense of overfamiliarity that infects every aspect of the play; rags to riches, the disintegration of the band, the drugs, the sex and the underage groupies, the betrayal of a friend, the outlandish persona masking an intelligent and sensitive persona. It is depressing but there is nothing here that hasn’t been done better many times before.
The shadow of Brett Easton Ellis looms large over this play, as it must with any work that focuses on this level of rich, disaffected ennui. Worlds that mere mortals can only imagine exists and for whom even the briefest touch can only end in humiliation and rejection; witnessed in the treatment of the fan in Germany made to sing What A Wonderful World before casually forgotten by Paul.
The problem is that no-one does this world as well as Easton Ellis and no-one has yet entirely successfully translated his vision to stage or screen (and this includes American Psycho). There is something about the depraved cruelty of these characters that can sing off the page and fall flat on the stage. We can imagine these characters but we don’t want to see them – they are grotesques that we shut between the covers but to see them embodied in the flesh is too shine too strong a light on them and their unrealness becomes all too apparent.
It is even more unfortunate for Birdland that the only time that this world has been captured in the kind of fevered vision that both Easton Ellis and Stephens seem to be aiming for is in the European segment of Rules of Attraction. Director Roger Avery manages to channel the hallucinatory feel of an Easton Ellis passage and recreate out in another medium.
As good as Scott is as Paul, not one of the 110 minutes felt as alive as one minute of the clip, and leaving the Royal Court it was hard to think of an original idea Stephens had brought to the table. The play is by no means a disaster but neither does it do anything to suggest that it is destined to become anything more than a GSCE performance piece, chosen by teenagers looking to complement their Shakespeare monologues with a more ‘edgy’ work.
Rules of Attraction – European Segment
Read…people in defence of Birdland
Read…people criticising Birdland