Fame drain: MTC's Birdland

Simon Stephens’ work is characterised by a sharp ear for dialogue, for his crisp lines – succinct and almost entirely without padding  as much as by his finely-wrought characters and scenarios, which often teeter on the edge of an abyss of their own making. His plays are scintillating, haunting, and sometimes terrifying, but never dull. While his recent play Birdland is certainly emblematic of his work, there seems to be a rather large vacuum or personality-hole at its centre, which stops it from being truly engaging.

Directed by Leticia Cáceres for the Melbourne Theatre Company, Birdland – the story of rock star Paul’s fall from grace – is modeled, in part, on Brecht’s Baal, and features all kinds of decadence, ruin, and people being cast aside like fruit once they have been peeled and eaten. I suppose Stephens’ Paul doesn’t so much fall neatly as much as plummet downwards, crashing and burning along the way. Birdland unfolds in a very fluid stream-of-consciousness manner, scenes blurring into one another with the help of Jethro Woodward’s sound design of drones and twangly guitars. Marg Horwell’s set – a large grey box-like space not dissimilar to a gymnasium – does not help to create any distinction between locations, but does help to convey the monotony of the band’s 200-date world tour.
The problem with the play is not so much with the direction – there are some nice moments and decisions that have been made by Cáceres to make Stephens’ play breathe and come alive – but with the play itself, and particularly the character of Paul. A satyr-like rock-star, Paul is superficial and narcissistic, very much under the illusion that he is magnetic, that people love him, and that he is the most important person in the world. Stephens does show us the other ‘normal’ people – some desperate for attention, some hanging on by the skin of their teeth, some trying to get out of the cycle – and how Paul’s behaviour affects them, but ultimately the play is about Paul, and Birdland shows just how soulless, lonely, and deluding fame can be. Perhaps this is its strength, but in Cáceres’ production, time warps and stretches so much so that the just-over two-hour production feels much much longer, and we soon grow sick of Paul’s whingeing and desperate attempts for attention. To combat this, the play – the production – needs more grunt, more rock’n’roll; more music, essentially. Whereas Tom Stoppard wrote the soundtrack into his play Rock ’n’ Roll, Stephens curiously leaves it out; while it may be that the music and what it sounds like is irrelevant to the play (and Paul’s downward spiral), it might actually help to make the play more engaging and watchable.
Cáceres’ cast of six are strong, but there still feels like room to grow into the characters and the space. As Paul, Mark Leonard Winter is wiry and charming, but even he can’t make Paul’s whingeing less obnoxious than it is. Socratis Otto, as Paul’s long-suffering friend Johnny, is subtly underplayed, until he too can no longer stand the sight of him, and leaves in a furious tirade of thrown food and upturned tables. Michala Banas, Bert LaBonté, Anna Samson, and Peta Sergeant all play numerous roles – some within the space of a scene – and make each new character unique and likeable, even if we only meet them for a few brief minutes. Anna Samson’s Marnie is a fragile and carefully-studied performance of light and shade, a girl who is drawn into Paul’s web but tries to resist his charm. Peta Sergeant’s Jenny and Michala Banas’ Annalisa are also two beautifully drawn performances which illustrate the destructive nature of Paul’s behavior, and show two people doing their best to kick hm out of it; the scene where Jenny gives Paul the what-for is superb. Bert LaBonté plays five different characters – each with different accents and mannerisms – including a Scottish fan, Louis, who cannot sing, and creates people from Stephens’ characters.
While I remain a fan of Simon Stephens’ work, I don’t think Birdland is his best work. What Stephens does do well here, and what Cáceres amplifies, is the unbearable loneliness of being famous.

We feel extraordinarily alone and disconnected from one another, so we construct ways to try and connect with each other, and, actually, they exacerbate the loneliness to the point that the only experiences we live through are vicarious ones. It’s the pornographic age.
- Simon Stephens, thequietus.com

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