“I don’t believe this,” Andrew Scott cries, gaze directed unwaveringly at the audience. “None of this is real. None of this is really happening. This whole thing is made up.”
Reality and its subjective mutability is a persistent theme throughout Birdland, Simon Stephens’ new play for the Royal Court. So too is liveness and its ever-present flipside, mediation. More audience members at a stadium gig today can see the big screens than the miniscule, far-away figures on stage; fans are more eager to snap selfies with their famous idols than to actually speak to them. Our glowing screens are never far from the edges of Stephens’ play, reminding us that it is not only rock stars who are encouraged to shape and enshrine their own image. We are all constantly sharing, editing, performing for our own personal audiences; blurring the lines between the real and the made up.
Birdland opens in the final stages of an international stadium tour, as its unnamed band stop off in Moscow. Lead singer Paul, reeking of charm and boredom, can have and do anything he wants – and he knows it. Stripped of limits and obstacles, the boundaries of his identity are slowly slipping away from him. He is, in every possible way, losing it. The play traces the escalating carnage of his existence as he careers unstoppably towards a personal and professional car crash, gathering the wreckage of other ruined lives around him on the way.
It’s no great stretch of the imagination to believe that Andrew Scott, charisma oozing from every pore, is a worshipped rock star. From the moment he struts on stage as Paul, he fixes the attention in that way that all the best frontmen do, making it almost impossible to look away. It is this magnetism that makes him ceaselessly compelling, even as he royally fucks over all of those close to him. Jenny, a waitress whom Paul whisks off her feet before spectacularly mistreating her, is generous when she describes him as a cunt; Stephens really has crafted an astonishingly despicable, broken character. Though, as Paul coolly retorts to an accusation that he is a “fucking animal”, he is very much human. That’s the terrifying thing.
Equally terrifying is the play’s verdict on the world we currently live in. While Birdland is superficially “about” the world of rock and roll and the personal crisis of one of its demigods, it is also about the bankrupt place in which society now finds itself. Paul, in all his power, disorientation and self-destruction, is the apex of rapacious capitalism and the cult of the individual. Whether he is a rock star or a celebrity of any other breed is less important than the fact of his fame and the value pinned to his personality. He is more commodity than person, displayed every night for the public’s consumption while record label executives gamble on his worth. No wonder he is losing a grip on his own identity, when all he can see in the mirror is a price tag.
Carrie Cracknell’s striking production both amplifies and tussles with these ideas about identity, individualism, celebrity and capitalism. From the very beginning, the space in which she locates Paul’s crisis is non-specific, strange and slightly dislocated from reality. Ian MacNeil’s typically stylish set consists of a shimmering golden archway and a row of electric blue chairs, the sleek simplicity hinting at the corporate sameness of hotel lobbies all over the world. Everywhere looks the same. There is, wisely, no attempt at naturalistic representation of the succession of hotel rooms, bars and restaurants in which the action takes place. Instead, everything happens in a knowingly theatrical arena; other performers remain on the stage when not in a scene, occasionally casting arch looks over their shoulders, while Scott takes time to flirt with the audience.
By starting out with such a deliberately odd and disorientating aesthetic, however, Cracknell is in danger of leaving herself with nowhere to go. An obvious but useful comparison is Three Kingdoms, which despite dodging an audience’s expectations from the off (and starting in a decidedly strange place with Risto Kubar’s haunting singing) managed to establish one reality which could then increasingly unravel throughout Ignatius’ journey to Germany and Estonia. There is a gathering momentum to Paul’s mental turmoil, signalled by ever brighter and more frequent photographic flashes and the rising tides of inky liquid seeping in from the sides of the stage, but this is a jerky breakdown, one that comes in sharp bursts, rather than the sense of spiralling out of control that the narrative seems to be asking for.
That said, in other ways Cracknell finds incisive and imaginative visual metaphors for the story Stephens has written. The cartoonish, plastic quality of the people Paul finds himself surrounded with (perhaps with the exception of down-to-earth band mate and best friend Johnny and the aforementioned Jenny, who reminds him of the girls he used to know at home) enhances his alienation from the world around him, which appears unreal and fantastical through his eyes. Meanwhile, the script’s understated yet unsettling preoccupation with bodies – their illness, disfigurement and inevitable decay – is hinted at by the slowly encroaching black liquid, which might as well be the creep of disease.
Given the subject matter, one of the most surprising things about this rendering of Stephens’ script is that we never hear so much as a bar of Paul’s music. In fact, aside from a couple of stylised movement sequences backed with pulsing beats, there is very little music at all in Cracknell’s production. The other exception is a deliberately terrible rendition of Sam Cooke’s ‘Wonderful World’, sung by one of Paul’s fans at his request and elevated to the same sort of scene-breaking moment as Steven Scharf’s memorable performance of ‘Rocky Raccoon’ in Three Kingdoms. The suggestion, perhaps, is that it is not really Paul’s music that matters – it is his fame, his monetary worth. Still, we never get a real sense of the muscular excitement and visceral thrill of a live rock concert, which feels like a shame. Theatre has overwhelmingly proved that it can offer the same intoxicating buzz as a live gig (see Beats or Brand New Ancients), but we don’t get that here. (It’s especially disappointing having heard Stephens speak at length about his own enthusiasm for rock music, little of which is allowed to come through – but perhaps a certain ambivalence about the world of rock and roll is appropriate given the events of the narrative.)
The plays’ surface message, that celebrity can fuck you up, might not be anything new. But there is so much more to Birdland than this familiar, oft-repeated observation. What it manages to do so well is convey the tortured complexities of Paul’s character, whose messy contradictions only make him all the more real, at the same time as making a sharp, implicitly political point about modern society. The production could push this second aspect further, shining a spotlight on us as much as on Paul, but it still stands as a damning critique of our globalised, brutally individualistic, fame-obsessed world.
Photo: Kevin Cummins.