Birdland concerns the mental descent of rockstar Paul, whose life and the lives of those he cares about are ultimately destroyed by his celebrity-status-induced egotism and false sense of invulnerability. The Wardrobe Theatre is the perfect choice for this play; its raked seating and stage, allowing the audience to sit on both sides, creates an appropriately intimate atmosphere from the offset. This is apt for a production depicting an insight into Paul’s internal psyche.
The very clever use of AV (projected on the back wall) creates a sense of place quickly and efficiently without relying on props/furniture/general clutter. More than that, it does not just tell you where you are physically, but culturally. The videos depict important political moments and flashes of everyday life to create a sense of the city’s personality and energy rather than a simple (and meaningless) ‘we are in Berlin now’. Adding this human aspect to the play’s aesthetic works perfectly for what is a naturalistic play about raw humanity. This means the set could be left simple and uncluttered, intensifying some of the most powerful moments of the play by way of contrast. When a character leaves Paul’s life, they take off their jacket and throw it on the floor. Although this could have been done a little more aggressively at times, the overall effect of the gradual accumulation of these tokens of loss is very effective. At the end of the play, this growing mess explodes as the actors throw assorted trash around the stage. A reminder of the proverb ‘a tidy room is a tidy mind’, this is a strong metaphor for Paul’s mental collapse, as he leaves the other characters to try and wade through his assorted messes and mistakes.
To match this excellence of direction and design, the cast of Birdland display some of the strongest acting ability I have seen all year. Every actor’s performance is extraordinary, making it difficult to single anyone out. However, a special mention must be made of Kate Crisp who is engaging from start to finish, despite the high demands of her role. Although the character of Paul is written for a man, the Paul of this production is decidedly female. This directorial decision is a nice touch as one rarely sees many productions depicting the messy celebrity lifestyle with a female protagonist. Kate’s portrayal of madness in Act 2 is incredible in its intensity and fluidity and one is able to see every specific stage of her developing madness. One of the stand-out moments is when she looks at the audience, saying ‘Who are all these people?’. Her crazed eyes make it clear we are only figments of her mind, bearing witness to her inevitable fall which creates a creepy and very surreal feel.
I have very little to criticise about Birdland, save a few slight tweaks to what is a thought-provoking, tragic and well-done production. The pace at the beginning of Act 1 could have been faster although once this picks up (and it does very quickly), I could not have been more engaged. Throughout all this emotional devastation, multi-rolers Jess Garlick, Layla Madanat and Stanley Rudkin heighten their roles beyond normality, contrasting beautifully with the stunning naturalism of the others. Their roles add some much needed comedy to an emotionally harrowing production. However, this comic attention could have been maintained for longer into the second act. More comic interjections in the emotionally vexing final chunk of the play would only have made the tragic end even more effective.
Sophie Stemmons, English Literature student
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