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.
Read…people in defence of Birdland
Read…people criticising Birdland