Simon Stephens' 2014 play is a trip to the dark side of rock'n'roll
Simon Stephens’ Birdland is the story of Paul (Graeme McRae), a straight up rockstar. He and bandmate Johnny (Jack Angwin) play stadiums with 75,000 screaming fans on any given night. Paul, as the face of their fame, is every rock trope you’ve ever imagined. He wears a fur coat and skinny jeans; he demands sex like there’s no way anyone will say no. This play spends two hours delving into his psyche. It’s not pretty.
Birdland captures Paul at a critical moment in his life: he’s on the last leg of an exhaustive world tour, logging more than 250 gigs in a year. All that’s left now is to play shows in Moscow, Paris and London and he’s done: back in his London home, where he can rest.
But Paul is also at the stage in his career where money and the VIP treatment hold far more meaning to him than music ever has – this may be why we never hear Paul’s music – and his relationship to the ‘real world’ is tenuous at best. His drug use is so advanced he’s taking it through his eyeballs, and he’s got a knack for power games: his specialty is plying someone with friendly chat before asking them to debase themselves for his pleasure.
Put simply: Paul is a dick.
But it’s clear that the secular worship he’s the subject of has, in part, made him this way: as he sees it, the money people spend on his albums, and tickets to his concerts, means that he must be a great artist. Consequently, Paul feels untouchable by everyday life and has begun to act as though the rules of common decency don’t apply to him.
Birdland is named after a song by Patti Smith, and inspired by Bertolt Brecht’s Baal, about a troubled genius poet whose inflated sense of superiority is his downfall. It’s a potentially potent mix of excess, cruelty, ego and despair that – much like Smith’s song – imagines an escape from pain by becoming inhuman. Paul’s actions eventually catch up with him, but not before he has inflicted serious collateral damage.
Stephens’ scenario is a little like British cult comic The Wicked + The Divine (which debuted in 2014 – the same year Birdland premiered in the UK), in which a pantheon of 12 gods are reincarnated every 90 years as the world’s biggest rockstars (Baal is even a character in the comic), but you’ll also recognise Birdland’s tragic beats in music documentaries, like Meeting People is Easy (which the AV Club described as being about ‘How Much it Sucks to Be Radiohead’) and Amy (a close look at Amy Winehouse’s undoing).
Trainspotters will find a lot of pop culture similarities and reference points in Stephens’ play. And if it doesn’t cover new ground or explore new concepts around fame and the negative effects it can have on a life,it does at least glance unflinchingly into the ugliest parts of us and ask: who would we become if it seemed like we were untouchable?
At around two hours long (with no interval), Anthony Skuse’s production feels looser than you may expect; rather than being a tension-building journey to inevitable self-destruction, this production has room to breathe. It meanders. This makes the play feel longer than it is, and as a result its late-stage plot revelations land softly and don’t make much impact.
That looseness partially comes from Skuse’s abstraction of a set, but it’s also exacerbated by the
doubling and tripling of actors to fill the ensemble. The play was written with that flexibility, but in this production, with an uneven cast, it takes on an atemporal quality: is this all in Paul’s head? Does he not distinguish one person from another? Unfortunately some of those new characters (journalists, fans, Paul’s manager) are only broad-strokes caricatures; this makes their interactions with Paul more comical than one suspects they should be, which takes some of the sting out of Paul’s behaviour and the momentum of the story.
Still, McRae is immensely watchable as Paul – charming and deplorable, all sinew and slime. Angwin’s Johnny, the play’s moral compass and constant, is his true match: just as cool but almost unflappable. It’s only after a tragic and unexpected death that his patience with Paul’s moods and actions begins to wear thin; he’s a man fraying at the edges.
Benjamin Freeman’s sound design pays tribute to Patti Smith in its orchestration and shape, and even if you’re not familiar with the song before going into the play, you’ll feel its ominous, otherworldly quality in the score. That’s one thing this production makes very clear: no one can be happy when they have everything. Just wait, and you’ll see their downfall.