Thursday, 23 October 2014


So many things about theatres make me nervous. These things include, but are not limited to: the possibility of actors flubbing their lines and everyone has to pretend everything is fine; the possibility of an actor seeing you and thinking you're bored when actually it's just the way your face goes; everyone being able to hear you eat/drink/sneeze; the idea that the people in front of you spent double on their seats; people saying really embarrassing pretentious things in the queue for the toilets in the intermission; the fact that everyone seems generally quite rich and smart and always seem to have one hand in their pocket while they stroll about; and the nagging thought that the whole production would be better if it was a film. While theatre ought to feel purer than cinema, I end up thinking about all these extraneous things and not paying as much attention as I should to the play.

I thought 'Bird' would be like that, but actually - even more so than when I saw, say, Hamlet soliloquise at the RSC - it made me understand why you'd choose theatre as a medium for your story. I'm sure Amaka Okafor as Leah Bird would be brilliant in some filmed version of 'Bird', but having her wandering around right in front of you, talking the way friends do about their new boyfriends, was this unrivalled, captivating experience. In the bar afterwards, me and the people I went with said how whenever Leah posed a question we'd felt compelled to answer her. It was fully immersive - the light touches of unreality, instead of throwing you out of the world of the play, simply pushed a little at the boundaries of what you accepted. 

The monologue Leah delivered snowballed from its kind of funny, kind of kitchen-sink beginning to something that was grotesque, heartrending and yet never heavy enough to be unpalatable. Leah, who is being exploited by an older man whom she describes with such loving, adoring detail, is a character who uses asides, detours and conversational dead-ends the way any other fourteen-year-old girl does. It was very difficult to sit and listen without wanting to help her; Okafor's performance was full of moments that made Leah this vital but vulnerable character (and 'We Found Love' by Rihanna, which plays a couple of times in 'Bird', has been recategorised as a tearjerker in my head now). Wonderfully, the dialogue never dipped into that horrible fake teenage-speak that some writers use when writing about young people - that weird soup of out-of-date slang, peculiar swearing and attitudes that are either completely childish or ancient. Laura Lomas' words were simple, clear, and real.

The set - piled high with mattresses and clutter - was gloriously tactile. Leah's interactions with it never felt forced, and I enjoyed that despite its relative simplicity, there were a couple of objects that were just there for decoration. (In a lot of my classes, we're reminded of Chekhov's gun, and of having everything there for the character to interact with; sometimes it's nice to just have props there to show that, yes, this is what the room looks like. Not everything needs to be picked up or discussed.) The lighting gave us an extra filter, reminding us that we were seeing what Leah saw. There's a moment, during a particularly dark part of the monologue, when Leah is all silhouettes and sharp angles, and you could feel everyone in the audience leaning in.

One thing I felt ambiguous about was the trope that I pointed out when I talked about 'A Streetcar Named Desire' - female madness as smudged make-up/a messy prettiness, as if female sanity is directly linked to beauty. However, as in 'Streetcar', it wasn't totally superfluous, and there was another layer of darkness with it being used in regards to a fourteen-year-old girl rather than the older Blanche Dubois. Leah's madness was all chemical, anyway, and despite my reservations I'd hold back from criticizing 'Bird's use of this trope outright.

The ending felt a bit too soon, like there were ten more minutes of material left. But I did like that our final takeaway from the play came not from Leah's subjective view of the room and the world, but from the way we interpreted her ambiguous last lines. This was a wonderful play that deserves every one of the buzzwords you could shower on it: engaging, moving, original. And I'm going to go back to the theatre. 

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