In some respects, The Birds is a glorious realisation of the National Theatre's hopes for its "Transformation" season in the remade Lyttelton space. In others, it inadvertently reinforces that even such a deliberate attempt at departure relies to a great extent on the same old, same old.
Almost exactly a decade since Robert Lepage's "mud" production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the National was roundly criticised for its concern with physicality, casting an acrobat rather than an actor as Puck and the like, this co-production with "alt.circus" company Mamaloucos uses a dozen or so acrobats and aerialists on ropes, trapeze and trampoline to represent the avian chorus. At first it looks like a flimsy excuse for a series of physical set-pieces to pad out the duration of Aristophanes' comedy to nearly three hours. Quite soon, though, the narrative and the cavortings come to seem so integrated that there could be little more natural.
A pair of wide-boy refugees from Athens at the time of the Peloponnesian war first secure permission to live amongst the birds, aided by the once-human hoopoe (a terrific performance by Josette Bushell-Mingo), and then persuade them to build a city in the sky and to tax the gods for flying through "their" heavens. Sean O'Brien's adaptation, like his poems, combines formal discipline with an appropriate spring in its step, and doesn't stint on the Aristophanic low comedy either, as we see the Athenian Peisthetaerus – Pez for short – transformed gradually from a fast-talking no-hoper into pretty much the king of the world.
It's a delicious, exhilarating blend, which can be seen on tour in the Mamaloucos big top from late August. However, the sombreness of the ending of this version, as Pez becomes a strutting tyrant, seems far in excess of the ambivalence of Aristophanes' original; it feels worked in more to fit the current mode for minor-key dying falls.
And even amidst such delightful innovation, a whiff of "the usual suspects" blows across the stage. When I told a moderately but not excessively theatre-savvy friend that this production was directed by Kathryn Hunter, he accurately guessed first time, without having heard a word about the show, that the lead actors were Marcello Magni and Hayley Carmichael.
Of course they're top-notch performers in this more physical/visual area (although Magni's Italian accent, still heavy after all these years, almost mangles O'Brien's more demotic lines). But it's not exactly a transformation, is it? This season kicked off with the long-established double act of Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw. The idea of the programme was to appeal to a new audience, to reach out to a neglected demographic; yet the fresh creative blood has been limited to the new Loft space, while the highest-profile productions in the Lyttelton have simply looked like giving off-the-wall playtime to already familiar teams, adventurous only within known limits. Fine, so on this occasion (unlike the earlier one) it happens to have worked a treat; it still takes more than that to vindicate the policy.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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