Birdland review (Southbank Theatre, Melbourne)

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In UK playwright Simon Stephens’s Birdland, international rock-and-roll stardom is presented as a kind of grotesque distortion. The play tantalises with its promise of a key-hole peek into the warped mind of a rock god, engages intermittently, but never finds its way to real poignancy. And this rather shabby-looking MTC production, directed by Leticia Cácares, doesn’t do much to focus the vision, although Mark Leonard Winter is brilliant as the self-destructive, drug-addled rock cliché.

After fifteen months, the world tour is finally winding down. The star is homeward bound. Moscow, Berlin, Paris and then London: just a handful of sold-out stadium shows stand between Paul and a well-earned break. He’s not looking forward to it. This monster of fame is afraid of home and afraid of home truths. He’s afraid to see himself as his dad sees him, and to see how completely the sociopath in himself has take over. Fame forgives his bad behaviour, but, as his manager reminds him, “Nobody’s famous when they’re sitting at home.”

And what is this bad behaviour? He makes extravagant demands of room service, takes drugs, eats and drinks too much, sleeps around and lies to everyone about everything. He enjoys hurting people emotionally — his fans, journalists, his band mates and the hotel staff. Even his manager, who knows how to handle him best, cops a spray in the end.

How did he get like this? Has the rock-star life changed him? Are these crude, almost naive manipulations the only way he has left of connecting with other people? No, he was always a bit of a dick. Those who’ve known him longest know the truth. His best mate knows it. The manager knows it. And his father knows it. “You haven’t changed,” says his old man somewhat ruefully toward the play’s end. Being famous just means that he can get away with it. Victims willingly put themselves in his way, drawn by the neon-glow of celebrity. Now he can be a complete dick.

Birdland is not about music or art; it’s all about money and attention. His music must be good, says Paul, because people are paying for it. Money graces and it affirms. Money is destiny. And it’s the same with fame: his bad behaviour is justified by celebrity. At least that’s what Paul thinks. It’s only when the truth about his money, and about how his contract with the recording company works, that reality senses through.

The play got a mixed reception in the UK when it premiered, and I’m afraid I’m with those who find this angstful anti-drama somewhat tedious. The theme of rock-star-as-paranoid-jerk is well worn, and there’s something depressingly familiar in Stephens’ take on it.

The play is episodic, and each new bad deed is more or less as bad as the last. There’s no real sense of a downward spiral: Paul is slipping around the bottom edge from beginning to end. He’s also irritatingly dim and ingenuous — of course he didn’t even read his contract with the label – and he never says anything particularly interesting about celebrity or globalisation or the stadium exsanguinations of corporatised rock-and-roll.

I suspect that a true wizard of the theatre, someone like a Carrie Cracknell, for instance, who directed the English premiere, might be able to transcend the weaknesses of the writing and create the sort of cold and lonely world we find in Grant Gee’s Radiohead tour documentary, Meeting People Is Easy, which Stephens claims was the inspiration for Birdland. But then again, why not just do a stage adaptation of the Radiohead doco? We’d be saved all the nonsense of Birdland, with cute mathematicians working room service in Moscow, smug cops cracking wise about statutory rape in London, brothel girls, cocaine eyedrops, suicidal revenant groupies and the rest.

In any event, Australian director Leticia Cácares seems to prefer silliness to building atmospheres of dread. They trash the buffet, naturally. The lights pulse as profiteroles go skidding into the footlights. There are plenty of women in lingerie, and for some reason there’s a trampoline. Squares of toilet paper rain down from the flies. And what is the attraction of these life-sized cardboard figures populating our stages at the moment?

Winter’s performance nonetheless dazzles. He captures perfectly the childlike cruelty and the childlike cunning of this simpering star; and yet he never lacks for charismatic intensity. He seems superior and aloof, provokingly arrogant. Through his daunting blue eyes we see an interior world of malice and sadness. At times he’s naive and a bit of a dork —  as rock stars so often are — but then, that wild look in his eyes! In Mark Leonard Winter we find a thesis on the nature of cool, and how closely it resembles a behavioural disorder. There is also outstanding support from Bert LaBonte, who seems born to transform the little people — managers, accountants and lawyers — into comic heroes.

[box]Birdland is at the Sumner Theatre, Southbank Theatre Melbourne until June 27. Featured image by Jeff Busby[/box]

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