Birdland, Royal Court

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“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.

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Blurred Lines, National Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Back in November of last year, myself and others were questioning the underrepresentation of female playwrights in the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary gala – and in its programming more broadly. Now, only a couple of months later, the fierce final scene of a new show with an all-female cast and a majority female creative team boldly critiques the venue’s gender inequalities from within its very walls. It’s nowhere near a solution, and one self-reflexive show in the theatre’s smallest, most risk-friendly space is no reason to get complacent, but it feels like a start.

The context for Carrie Cracknell and Nick Payne’s new show is right there in the title. Robin Thicke’s misogynistic song and accompanying video were just the most visible tip of the iceberg in a year that outdid itself in terms of casual sexism and media objectification of women. But 2013 was also a year in which feminism was very much part of the public discourse, a discourse that Blurred Lines continues. It is less a play than a theatrical conversation; an ongoing discussion about insidious, background sexism in its many mutating forms.

The show, devised by the company with Cracknell and Payne, promises to interrogate all areas of gender politics, from the media to the workplace to the home. It’s a big ask. To tackle these myriad forms of sexism, the piece deploys what are perhaps best described as a series of sketches. We see, for instance, a conversation between a married couple about the husband’s visits to prostitutes; the repeated shooting of a television scene in which a woman is assaulted; an office confrontation in which it is made clear that success for a few individuals does not translate into equality for the many. Given the force with which that latter point was made in Top Girls in 1982, it’s telling that it still needs to be reiterated.

These swift, punchy scenes, punctuated with performances of songs that cheekily and sometimes explosively critique the depiction of women in popular music, are all played out on the huge white staircase of Bunny Christie’s design. This installation, complete with colour-changing lights, boldly thrusts out into the Shed’s modest performance space, itself acting as a sort of intervention. It frames the female performers in ways that at times reflect the objectifying aesthetics of music videos and advertisements, but at others set up an uncomfortably close confrontation with the audience, while the steps themselves are suggestive of the distance that we still have to climb.

But what Blurred Lines is perhaps most successful at exposing is the sexism that remains rife within theatre itself. The piece opens with a series of statements spoken in turn by the performers: “girl next door”, “single mum”, “Northern blonde, bubbly”. It soon becomes clear that these are roles, referring at once to casting types, dominant cultural perceptions and the desperately restrictive boxes that women are expected to fit into in everyday life. This critique of what roles women are allowed to play remains implicit throughout, coming to a head in the final scene. While this powerful conclusion risks being something of a theatrical in-joke, alienating those who might not catch its shrewd self-referential nods, it is an important move towards theatre owning up to its own failings when it comes to gender (in)equality.

Representation is also at stake in other ways. Throwing together a cacophony of female voices, the piece is careful never to directly speak for or represent any one woman. When an individual’s story is told, as in the narrative of a teenage girl who is sexually assaulted by her partner, it is transmitted through multiple voices and in a fragmented structure. Straightforward portrayal of anyone who might be construed as a victim – perhaps most prominent among the roles available to women – is deliberately avoided. This also points, though obliquely, at the persistent tendency to take one woman as a representative for her entire sex, a tendency that the company stubbornly refuse.

On another, simpler level, the very fact of an all-female cast does interesting things to the staging of sexism. Every male character in the piece is, necessarily, played by a woman. This inversion makes an intriguing contrast with, say, Three Kingdoms, which despite sharply skewering misogyny, still placed it – potentially problematically – in the mouths of men. In this production, the exchange of misogynistic expressions between an all-female cast furiously underlines them, while managing to subtly subvert these views at the same time as reproducing them.

Yet women are still, with unsettling frequency, seen as victims here. That ranges from victims of violence to victims of workplace prejudice, but time and again they are rendered voiceless and frustrated. The intention is understandable; like the Everyday Sexism project, the piece attempts to unmask the latent sexism that pervades our society, often going unnoticed and unremarked upon. The bitter familiarity of many of these scenes provokes both recognition and discomfort, but it leaves us mired in our current situation rather than looking towards any solutions.

Of course, the very existence of this production and its team of talented women is a form of action in itself, and perhaps it is apt that we are left to continue the conversation and fight ongoing injustices. To downplay the scale of inequality and let the audience off the hook would be irresponsible. Nonetheless, there is something a little disheartening about a piece of theatre with such fire in its belly that insists on simply presenting and representing all too familiar portraits of sexism and victimhood.

Hattie Morahan

Originally written for Exeunt.

Never was a door slam so deafeningly resonant. The escalating dramatic action of A Doll’s House hinges – quite literally – on the moment that Nora finally shuts the door on her husband and children, walking away from a life that has hemmed her in. It’s a climactic moment that has been variously read as a statement against stifling patriarchy, as the shocking action of an uncaring and irresponsible mother, as an inescapable tragedy. But for Hattie Morahan, who is just about to return to the role of Nora in Carrie Cracknell’s production at the Young Vic, the play’s famous culmination is just one of its many facets.

“One is aware of that whole phenomenon and I can totally understand it, but it’s a phenomenon that’s built up around a single act,” she says of the debate surrounding the play’s conclusion, going on to describe readings that focus on that act as “incredibly reductive” ways of looking at Ibsen’s masterpiece. “It’s quite an incredible arc to go on from the start of the action to the end, and I think if it’s all geared towards the door slam then that actually distorts what the play is,” Morahan continues. “The play is about a marriage and it’s about a particular family. I think the more you can honour the detail and the particularities of those individuals and the mess that they’ve made of their lives, the more that her leaving will resonate in whatever way it does with the people who see it.”

This approach lends a richly detailed texture to Morahan’s Nora, a woman perpetually caught between ringing laughter and crushing despair. As she juggles her husband, her young children and the creditor knocking insistently at the door, small moments are repeatedly on the cusp of betraying her carefully hidden turmoil – a flutter of the hands, the startled catching of a reflection. Like Ian MacNeil’s elegantly revolving set, this Nora glides swan-like through the play, all composure on the surface, while frantically churning the water beneath. She also emerges as frequently spoilt and manipulative, a slyly wheedling flirt with a fragile strain of naivety.

“I’ve never really found I have any trepidation about making characters unlikeable,” Morahan reflects on her interpretation of the role. “If anything I’m far more drawn to people’s flaws and when they behave badly than someone who’s heroic or pious – I’ve got a weird reflex against that. I think my gut instinct is to try and reduce heroism and make it human.” She also believes that to do justice to Nora as written by Ibsen, a character with “such a skewed view of the world and her place in it”, it’s necessary to draw out the less palatable aspects of her personality. “She behaves really appallingly,” says Morahan, “and it’s only through the action of the play that you discover why that is.”

It’s a role that demands overt performance, both in the central theatricality of Nora’s dancing of the tarantella – here a display of sensuality that collapses into distracted frenzy, an arresting physicalisation of Nora’s desperation played out under a twitching spotlight – and in the unrelenting performance of her marriage to Torvald and the display she feels compelled to put on for other men. “The performative element, as I understand it, seems to have come right from when she was a child,” says Morahan. “There’s a shame or an inappropriateness associated with just being herself; she’s always got to be what pleases other people – specifically men.” When this audience dissolves, as Morahan explains, Nora is left with a yawning gap in her identity.

“I think that’s one of the most terrifying things she realises at the end. Her marriage has been such a stressful time that she’s had not a moment to really breathe or consider who she is or what it means to be happy, or if she is happy. One of the shocking realisations at the end is that when all that is taken away, underneath the performance she doesn’t know who she is – there’s a sort of void. She’s never been given the self-worth or the self-esteem to value herself as an entity when it’s not in a pleasing shape for men.”

Morahan explains that the aim shared by Cracknell and designer MacNeil was to somehow replicate the play’s original sense of accusatory familiarity for its bourgeois audiences: “yes it’s nineteenth-century, and yet half-close your eyes and you could be in a shabby chic apartment in West London”. She also gives much credit to Simon Stephens’ new version of the script, which “seems to have one foot in the nineteenth century and one foot in now, without ever drawing attention to it”. It is not a self-conscious, pointed updating, yet like the design it applies a light contemporary gloss. “It’s sort of miraculous,” says Morahan. “The words, as you’re saying them, feel of their time and yet utterly now. It’s very deft.”

This evocation of the now within the context of the past immediately raises the much asked question of what A Doll’s House has to say to us today. What the freshness of this interpretation raises is how many of the difficulties that are grappled with in the play remain sadly relevant in the twenty-first century, particularly in relation to female experience. “The gender politics are weird,” Morahan muses on this topic, “because in so many respects things have utterly transformed in terms of the independence that women have nowadays, but equally, in terms of a kind of insidious sexism – when we’re not talking about wage differences or glass ceilings or third world gender problems – I think there are still these same tensions.”

These tensions and the delicate balancing act that many modern women find themselves negotiating today were also explored in the short film Nora, made through a collaboration between the Young Vic, The Guardian and The Space, and sitting alongside and in dialogue with the production. Taking inspiration from the premise of A Doll’s House on what Morahan calls “a very crude level”, it is instead more of a probing meditation on contemporary motherhood and what glossy women’s magazines have enshrined as “having it all”.

It’s a now ubiquitous phrase that Morahan uses wryly: “On appearances you’re having it all – your mothers have won all the battles and here you are. The questions the film asks are to do with happiness and to do with satisfaction and what this is all for – what have we actually gained? It was fascinating to do, because it did make me think about how roles have changed and how expectations have changed, but we’re still trying to work out what that balance is. Whatever it is, it’s going to be messy; there are no perfect answers.”

For now, Morahan is back in rehearsals with the rest of the company, rediscovering the play after several months away from it. “It feels a bit backwards,” she says of the experience of returning to a production, with a role that was fully formed but now needs to be re-excavated. There is also added pressure for this run, as Morahan goes back to the role that won her the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle awards. She admits that this enhanced level of expectation has caused some anxiety, but for the most part she describes this second rehearsal period as “liberating”, an opportunity to truly inhabit the play and make new discoveries.

“It’s a bit like knowing you have to jump into a really freezing cold swimming pool,” Morahan laughs. “You know it will be fine when you’re in.”

Photos: Johan Persson