Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Birdland, Royal Court

Review: Birdland, Royal Court

Rock gods and pop idols: we deify our best musicians. We build them shrines and bow down before them. We’re not worthy. We. Are. Not. Worthy. Think of that white wall, a ripple of corrugated iron, on the London underground in the mid-60s, spray-painted with the words ‘Clapton is God.’ The tag spread, a spray-painted epistle. He wasn’t the only one: Dylan is a prophet. Nina Simone, the High Priestess of Soul. James Brown, its Godfather. Madonna skipped the process of earning adulation. She deified herself.

Simon Stephens’ latest shows a rockstar doing the very same thing. Paul’s coming to the end of a world tour: Moscow, Berlin, Paris, then home, London. He stays in these cities’ very best hotels; in the best rooms – no, he insists, in the best suites. (People get rooms. Rock gods get suites.) His career has taken off. His music might have hollowed out, but he himself is becoming hallowed.

Bit by bit, one rider at a time, Paul realises that he can get whatever he wants: first, a modest request; a peach. Locally produced. In Moscow. “Do they farm peaches here?” asks his bandmate, Johnny. “They better start,” comes the reply.

With every assent, the impulse swells. Paul can click his fingers and summon up £200,000 helicopters. He can persuade women to do his bidding, make offers that can’t be refused, magic up food fit for an American Psycho: trout roe tempura, chocolate and eucalyptus, Iberican ham tapioca. All of those are bona fide El Bulli specialities. Why make anything up anymore? “I literally have enough money to buy anything,” purrs Paul.

All this is material, but Paul also starts to test the limits elsewhere, pushing at people’s buttons. No one says no to him. What happens when he says jump? What happens when he says jump off this building? What happens when he insists he can jump over the moon?

Paul hops into bed with his bandmate’s girlfriend, Marnie. He toys with her, teasing that he’ll tell and never letting up, no matter what she threatens. When she commits suicide, leaping off the hotel’s roof, it’s not the shock or the guilt that derails him – though they both swirl around his head confusedly – but the realisation that he might just have the power to send people to their deaths.

The usual rules don’t apply to Paul. Not only is he above the law – procuring the finest smuggled weed in Moscow, pipetting pure cocaine into his eyeballs – he is above morality. He can turn up at Marnie’s grieving parents’ house to taunt them, to play in their grief like a child in a sandpit. He can force others into complicity against their will. He can casually, callously tell Johnny about fucking Marnie, to no end whatsoever. He even starts to wonder whether he’s above death itself. So sleeping with underage girls, that’s not even smallfry.

The point is that Paul’s rockstar meltdown is not just a.n. other rockstar meltdown. Birdland’s been accused of predictability on that front. It’s actually an ascension of sorts – not unlike Icarus’s birdlike flight. The clue’s there in the Patti Smith song that lends Birdland it’s title: “I’m going up,” she half-sings, half-wails, “I’ll go up there / Go up go up go up go up up up up up up.” There’s that repeated lyric about not being human. Paul says something very similar when he’s confronted by his bandmate early on:

                   Johnny:             “You’re a fucking animal.”
.                  Paul:                   “I am so not. I am completely human.”

Let’s go back to linguistics. “Completely human.” Not unlike übermensch, right? After all, God is dead and now Paul, like Clapton, is God. He makes up his own moral code, rather than adopting those of others. Birdland is loosely inspired by Baal, Brecht’s play about a poet who rejects bourgeois behaviour for his own personal debauchery. Yet, where Baal’s acts stem from rejection of bourgeois attitudes, Paul’s are an extension – a hyper-extension – of them. Money lets him make up his own rules. He has broken through the other side. Birdland is less a version of Baal, than an inversion of it.

Alternatively, why not say super-human? Paul’s basically already there. He’s a superstar. He’s a super-rich superstar. He is above and beyond the rest of us. He is one. We are the throng. 75,000 or more all staring up at him, transfixed. And that must be intoxicating. It makes Paul feel all the more super-human: “All the pores in my skin were open,” he explains, “I was seeing unbelievably far and hearing every sound on stage with astonishing clarity and looking right into the core of the souls of every single fucking person in the whole of the fucking crowd.”

There’s a mini maths lectures in the middle of Birdland: the number 1 only makes sense in relation to every other number, to 2, to 4, to 75,000, to 38,000,000. “As soon as one number is destabilised everything falls apart.”

So yes: this is a play about inequality; of riches, of self-worth, of talent. The last is just as important as the first. Crucially, the only music we hear is a drawn-out encounter, when – at Paul’s bidding – a tone-deaf fan mauls Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World, pretty much in full. That it’s so godawful – flat as a pancake, all the more tuneless amped up – makes you realise quite how rare a creature Paul is. He is – and Andrew Scott has the exact same thing – raw charisma. Electricity. Ease. Wit. Devilish mischief. Star-quality. Superpowers.

As a play about inequality, it’s also a play about globalisation. Every high-end hotel is basically the same. Every gig has the same set-list; every crowd, the same blur of faces. Paul’s life – in Moscow, Berlin, Paris, London – is a conveyor belt of sponsor’s champagne and corporate smalltalk. And the same fucking photo, taken on the same fucking smartphone. And an inescapable half-thought of Marnie, up on the roof, stretching out her arms like an aeroplane’s wings and, accompanied by the roar of a jet engine, taking off.

Yet, for my money, Carrie Cracknell’s handsome, abstracted production doesn’t serve Stephens’ play particularly well. Two reasons. First, that matter of super-humanity. If Paul is elevating himself above and beyond humanity, acting in an increasingly callous, manipulative, unempathetic manner, he needs to be surrounded by humans. Cracknell’s small cast – five plus Andrew Scott – necessitates multi-role performances and too often, we get ‘meeja’ caricatures rather than real people. Too often it mocks those around Paul – the manager with an iPad strapped to his wrist, the VIP corporate guests trying to impress, even the lollipop-sucking, updo-ed underage groupie – where it dearly needs to care for them. Paul is surrounded by plastic people, mannequins in sunglasses and wigs, all smiling that same fixed smile. All of this serves to take the edge off Paul’s cruelties and immoralties, rather softening the jolt of the play’s actions and scuffing the notion of above and beyond.

Second, Cracknell and her designer Ian MacNeil emphasis the materialism running through the play at the expense of too much else. The overarching gesture of the production – largely through Macneil’s design – is to weigh Paul down with stuff. Early scenes are nimble. They take place with the cast seated in baby blue wheelie chairs. Scenes slip seamlessly into one another. They don’t need anything to signify location. They’re light on their feet. Bubbles float above the stage. Over 110 minutes, minimalism moves to maximalism. The stage swells and the show expands. A golden arch – both bling bar and holy altar – grinds backwards and forwards. Rooms get furniture. Characters get props. Oil bubbles up to envelop the stage.

That all adds up, but it flattens the textures in the text. That’s why Paul’s downfall seems so predictable, because it’s entirely diagnosed in material terms. Actually, Cracknell’s choice derails the play in another way: it bogs it down. Where the play wants to take off, to soar (and, of course, to crash, Icarus-like), this staging has it slowing down, grinding almost to a halt. It’s deliberate – after all remember what oil does to birds’ feathers – and the gesture makes sense on paper, but absolutely not in the playing. As Paul’s actions get worse and worse, Birdland should increase in its seismic dis-ease. Cracknell tempers its G-Force. Birdland – well, Paul – needs to ascend. This only flutters.

Photograph: Tristram Kenton

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