I first encountered Birds in a classics module during my first semester at St. Andrews. After reading it, I remember thinking: what a shame such a delightful play is so utterly and completely unperformable. So, needless to say, I wasn’t going to miss this production. I wanted to see how it would overcome the two main challenges of the play: that half the characters are birds, and half the action takes place in the sky.
The birds were imaginatively rendered through Freya Upton’s wonderful costumes, which blended feathers and togas into a whimsical, technicolor aviary. The actors followed through with jerky, birdlike movements and noises I would never have imagined the human throat could produce. Clever use of what can often be an awkward venue took care of the spacial issue: actors moved between earth and sky via the floor and the elevated, blue-lit stage. Instead of being lowered onto the stage as they might have been in Aristophanes’ day, gods descended from the tech box.
These strengths did not quite compensate for a script which often felt strained and painfully slow. Stephen Halliwell’s translation is a good one, but it could have done with some cutting; some of the longer chorus speeches in particular dragged a few dozen lines too long. That said, every time I started to get bored I was caught off guard by a moment of real hilarity, such as Tom Hodson’s entrance with a stuffed goat or Brittany Barwise’s pan pipes solo. Those quintessentially Greek parts where the action comes to a screeching halt for a three-page discourse on politics or religion are always difficult to get right, and Birds made a valiant effort to modernize the text while still staying true to its roots. Swapping the names of Athenian politicians for those of Trump and Theresa May updated the satire and drew the audience in at points where we might otherwise have zoned out, and the actors delivered gleeful obscenities with all the bawdy enthusiasm one hopes to find in Aristophanes.
Alex Schellekens and Adam Spencer brought particularly strong performances as Peisetairos and Euelpides, grounding the play, as it were, in the human world while the birds squawked and flapped overhead. Schellenkens in particular captured Peisetairos’ troubling transformation from genial, disenchanted Athenian to conniving, dictatorial, potentially cannibalistic bird.
Birds is a chaotic play by nature, but there were so many elements to this production that the overall effect was especially bewildering—for the actors, it seems, as well as the audience. It was an energetic performance bordering on frantic, and among all the moving parts, togas slipped, words were fumbled, and an otherwise excellent chorus struggled to speak in unison. My impression was that, with a little more time, these wrinkles would have been ironed out into a cohesive whole.
I applaud the ambition of taking on such a bizarre, challenging, culturally distant source text. The pacing was rocky and some of the jokes were misjudged, but in the end Birds has achieved what I thought was impossible. In the Director’s Note in the program, Georgia Curwen mocks skeptics like me by writing, “What you will see is fake. These birds are in fact men, and those are not feathers but costumes. Nothing you see is real and so can have no impact on you. An ancient comedy cannot comment on present day life … Enjoy.” I did enjoy. And if nothing else, she has proved me wrong.