'Birdland' review or 'Will the real Andrew Scott please stand up?'

'Birdland', Simon Stephens
Royal Court Theatre, 10th April 2014

‘Birdland’ is a new type of Simon Stephens play. It doesn’t have the emotional eloquence of ‘Harper Regan’ or ‘Sea Wall’. Nor does it possess the restless dynamism of ‘Three Kingdoms’ or ‘Morning’. In many ways, ‘Birdland’ is far more straight forward than these works. It is a Faustian tale of a successful pop star who sells his soul for fame and fortune.

However. There is a theatrical meter to this piece – a gradual visual, tonal and sub-textual expansion – that lends this play great power and depth. It is one of the most controlled yet enveloping pieces Stephens has written. There is also a blinder of a performance from Andrew Scott; a man so theatrical, I suspect he was born beneath the boards.  

Scott plays rock star Paul, who is on the umpteenth leg of an extensive tour. The show opens in Moscow, where Paul is regularly playing to an audience of 75,000 adoring fans. In one of countless clever moves from director Carrie Cracknell, Paul’s performing life is kept off-stage. Paul’s rock career unfolds somewhere in the wings, beyond our perspective and understanding, suggested but never fully revealed.

The production is punctuated with hints at Paul’s rock career. Many scenes are underscored with the low throb of distant rock music. At pivotal moments, a flurry of camera flashes flare up in Paul’s face. In between scenes, Paul offers us snatches of dance routines. The dancing is stiff and rigid, as if something sharp and ugly is trying to wriggle free from Paul’s body. The dancing would look robotic, were it not for that tremor of soul and sheer desperation that shimmers beneath those weird and angular movements.

The absence of Paul’s career adds a surreal glow to the play. Were the music one notch quieter and the dancing one dial weirder, it’d be hard to believe his career existed at all. The doubt creeps in: is this career all in Paul’s head? That doubt is important; it reminds us of the frailty of Paul’s fame, which we spot early on but Paul recognises far too late.

Scott is the glowing centre to this darkly simmering modern fable. He is a phenomenal absence; a blank space of a human being, who sucks everyone into his private abyss. Scott has a curious way of looking without seeing. His stare looks trapped; it’s as if he can’t see beyond himself. Scott frequently looks out into the audience with this empty glare. He sees us and does not, makes contact and instantly mocks that contact. It is the perfect representation of the warped connection a rock star feels with his fans or an actor feels with his audience. We can see him and feed off him but Paul – as both rock star and actor – cannot hope to feel the same connection with us. It is one way street of affection, meaning and purpose.  

Scott is an exceptionally dramatic actor but he also instils his theatrics with a grounding casualness. Even when Scott is popping his eyes or stretching his face into a silent scream, it doesn’t feel unreal. There’s a low key nature to Scott’s theatrics that puts the audience at ease. Stephens’ play and Cracknell’s directing possess the same drip drip charm and obscurity. Things start out normally enough and we are slowly pulled into Paul’s world until it’s much too late; things have gotten thoroughly fucked up and there is no way out.

Stephens’ script is so subtly dislodged that it’s impossible to spot when the moorings are let loose. The firmness of the script dissolves along with Paul’s grip on reality. As Paul’s tour continues and his diva requests become increasingly outlandish, his behaviour more erratic and threatening, the characters, dialogue, staging and scenery throb, morph and melt. It’s a bit like watching Dali’s melting clock writ large across the stage.

The ensemble cast (with particularly diverse work from Daniel Cerquiera) becomes omnipresent and yet oddly invisible. They look on, always at the back of the stage and in weird costume, yet we only see them when Paul sees them. The actors play increasingly unlikely roles and their costumes, stances and delivery grow out of synch with the parts they are playing. Two ladies in sunglasses play burly cops, a daughter play her own mother and Paul’s dad is the dead ringer for his agent. The word begins to slide.

The stage is incrementally rinsed of colour and we understand that, when anything is possible, everything becomes very ordinary indeed. Paul’s elaborate meal request arrives in the form of a black smoothie and little blobs of black begin to seep over everything that once sparkled. A black spot appears on Paul’s hand and quickly disappears; a sooty smear materialises on his cheek and, gradually, a murky black pool encircles the stage.

Not everything in this production works. The ensemble cast, particularly the women, are given necessarily diluted roles. They are shadows for Scott to trample over and the actors, though bold, are given relatively little to play with. The staging is also problematic. Ian MacNeil’s set comes into its own in the final scenes but it initially feels self-conscious. There’s an ugly concrete arch that never proves particularly useful and the great bare walls, exposed around the stage, suggest an absence of set rather than an extra layer of meaning. There’s an a lot of action with chairs early on that feels cumbersome and a tad obnoxious.

But these are quibbles in an otherwise subtly captivating production, which uses enveloping theatrics to pull us into a frightening Faustian vision. There’s an extra gloss of irony to this production, when one considers that it is Scott’s TV work that has launched him into the big time. The Royal Court audience was packed with ‘Sherlock’ fans, many of whom have possibly never seen Scott on-stage. Yet it is in the theatre where Scott excels. Lots of those fans have come to see the wrong Andrew Scott. The other Scott – the real and best Andrew Scott – doesn’t even exist to them. 


Popular Posts