“Josephy McAulay is Bowie-esque as Tereus, King of the Birds. Flamboyant yet balanced. He owns the stage but is prepared to share.”
Rosy fingered dawn breaks through the floor to ceiling windows of the Edinburgh49 conference room. Scylla and Charybdis have nothing on our esteemed editor when she’s on the warpath. If you’re lucky she’ll just turn you to stone gorgon-style. If not you’ll find yourself clutching a short straw waiting in line to see something so bad the shade of Achilles would thank his lucky stars he gets to flit about all day in the underworld.
But I’m in luck! Not only have I not been turned to stone (rock hard abs aside) but I’m in the queue to see Edinburgh University Classics Society (EUCS) performing Aristophanes, and I love Aristophanes. I love Aristophanes so much I have an autographed poster of Douglas M. MacDowell on my wall.
What is it reasonable to expect from students producing work likely to fall among their set texts? Obviously a solid, even reverential approach from young minds absorbed in the comic genius of ancient knob gags and innuendo – in your endo. But if you’re anticipating ropey acting, adequate costumes and limited choreography – you’d be wrong. Far from delivering an earnest but ham-dram performance, this production of Emily Ingram and Lauren Moreau’s adaptation of The Birds is well on the road to the Dionysia.
We enter to find Summerhall’s demonstration room bathed in dry ice. A piano keyboard sits upstage right and drawings of birds are pinned aside the chalkboard (also featuring a bird). This helps to illustrate that The Birds is about Birds. Or rather it is about two Athenian wideboys convincing the King of the Birds to blockade Olympus by stopping smoke rising to heaven from sacrifices offered to the gods by men.
Euan Dickson is Pisthetaerus, the brains behind the operation. Max Cumming as Euelpides is his birdbrained confederate. Aristophanes deploys their self-imposed (or maybe self-preserving) exile as a means to take satirical target at the foibles of his fellow Athenians. Where other adaptations might have entirely respun these comic threads into contemporary cloth, here the antique flavours are preserved. As opposed to the coach-tour approach of say, Fringe landmark Shakespeare for Breakfast, this production is free of naff pop-culture references (actually, there is one but it is essential to the plot). The audience, composed largely of classicists, is expected to make the ascent unaided.
Plenty of spectacle lines the script’s path so that even my companion, despite being a semi-barbarous science type, is never lost. Josephy McAulay is Bowie-esque as Tereus, King of the Birds. Flamboyant yet balanced. He owns the stage but is prepared to share. And there is plenty of talent to go round. Some great character work is on offer from Jacob Close (calm, pacy – the ideal foil to Dickson), Byron Jaffe (a middle order master of horizontal bat shots) and Matthias Vollhardt as the wandering poet lost in himself reminded me so much of Thom Dibdin I nearly fell off my bench in surprise.
A quick look down the cast & crew list suggests The Birds might be a rather plummy affair. Fortunately Rachel Bussom (as Tereus’ consort, Procne) and Jodie Mitchell (as his deadpan, pun-dropping doorkeeper) provide laconic counterpoise to the home counties Attic. While the chaps are larking about, they prick egos on stage and off – scorching without burning. Bussom is the best thing we’re likely to see before Jennifer Saunders returns in the second series of Blandings.
Birds in general, and the birds in The Birds in particular, are a showy order of creature. All feathers and dance steps, they’re never happier than when being admired. Tereus’ court centres on his spectacular daily cabaret. It’s a fantastically tall order for a production staged in a rather dreary auld lecture theatre. The dance routines were devised to look impressive without over-taxing the mixed company. Colourful (if malting) feather boas combine with garish, lacy things from the parts of Primark unseen by men to raunchercise proceedings – as does Gaia Arcagni (whose charming physical range runs the full gamut from crow to flamingo). Tamsyn Lonsdale-Smith all but steals the show with her brilliantly conceived entrance as Iris, floating in on the herculean arms of her devoted attendants.
The Birds is not without its shortcomings. The cast are under-directed when not centre stage. Dickson and Cumming do not blend into the background and their slapstick needs much polishing, as do Cumming’s shoes. The production is too prop light. The business necessary to successfully be off stage while on it is absent. Several of the birds decide to take up smoking for want of anything better to do – if they had wings instead of fingers the result could not be any clumsier. The pianist is utterly lost amid the hilarity with little to do. Either he needs a mask, or a bell with which to mark the passing of each bird-related pun. The venue acoustics are awkward and some are managing better than others.
This is a production deserving a much longer run. Over the course of a Fringe it would be polished and perfected so that it might exceed the success of the original 414 BC outing of The Birds and claim first prize. Even so, much effort has gone in and more that is clever, witty and insightful has come out. This is a great production which you’ll remember fondly even when pinned down by angry Spartans in a walled orchard listening to goatsong.
Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 15 November)
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