We need no reminding this week what a lethal combination Sex ‘n’ drugs and rock ’n roll can be. So in the way of things, Simon Stephens’ latest, Birdland has its own coincidental topicality.
The portrait of the inner life of a charismatic rock star it features the equally mesmerising Andrew Scott, recently of tv Sherlock fame (Moriarty), but even before that, catching the breath in Royal Court plays such as Mike Bartlett’s Cock and Rob Evans’ A Girl in a car with a Man.
Scott has the unnerving capacity to suggest severe psychological damage with a slight inflection of voice and a look that seems to grow steadily more terrifying even whilst you’re registering it. Here, playing Paul, a globe-trotting singer, hips girating in an echo of rock ‘n ‘ roll frontmen down the years, he and director Carrie Cracknell (see previous Blurred Lines review and director of the Young Vic’s award-winning A Doll’s House) have added or rather stripped the gesture bare to turn it into a threatening symbol of cultural fetishism, at once threatening and iconic.
Paul’s character is beginning to run down. In the space of just under two hours, we seem him dissolving, almost literally. By the end he is `swamped’, surrounded by black water, swimming around in his own dissolution.
It’s a masterful portrayal in a production by Cracknell that does everything it can to distance itself from naturalism. The women in Paul’s life (Nikki Amuka-Bird, Charlotte Randle, Yvonne Kettle) – whom he treats, typically, with contempt and humiliation – are seldom more than cartoon cut-outs, decked out in various garishly coloured specs and wigs. His best mate, Johnny (Alex Price) and his manager, David (Daniel Cerqueira) seldom raise their voices above monochrome – an indication perhaps of how Paul sees all those around him, paler shades of grey to his irridescent, peacock ego.
The effect however intensifies a sense of alienation from a writer who is something of an unheralded national treasure. Stephens’ output is prolific and his work for the Royal Court (Motortown, Country Music, Herons) and elsewhere (adapter of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, Punk Rock, Harper Regan, and On the Shore of the Wide World) is some of the best the theatre world has had to offer in the past decade. Perish the thought, but is there just a chance he is beginning to write himself out? Or needs to take a bit of a break?
For Birdland, in the end, despite Scott and the plastic ingenuity of Cracknell’s production, tells us very little we didn’t already know about the commodification of culture, the corruption of fame and money on the human soul and spirit.
Paul’s last line is a classic, though: `When you can see the things I’ve seen and go to the places I’ve been to. When you can do all that you don’t die.’ Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin et al…How true, how true!