Directed by Anthony Skuse
542 King Street, Newtown
Season: 3 October – 4 November
Birdland details the abusive and egotistical rise of a rockstar and his vacuous fall. Paul makes music and lives life large whilst scattering collateral damage in his wake. With all that money and fame he can do anything he wants - so much freedom! Including the freedom to destroy himself. I came away from the play convinced that an abundance of money and fame have the capacity to ruin your life and are thoroughly undesirable. Considering we live in a world that idolises both of these things, the play is compelling to achieve this.
Graeme McRae plays Paul with complex charisma, the kind you'll likely be familiar with as the distinct quality possessed by men in power keen to exploit and manipulate. Seeing this character on stage is both saddening due to its familiarity and boldly important, given that so often our society puts powerful men on a pedestal and shelters them from criticism when the truth of their behaviour begins to be revealed. McRae's performance felt significant to me in light of the exposure of Harvey Weinstein's abusive and criminal behaviour against over 30 women who have recently spoken up regarding his flagrant conduct. The character of Paul and Weinstein may operate in different industries, but the parallel is their power, consequent abuse, and systems that allow them to continue in this behaviour protected by a shroud of silence. A happy parallel is the undoing of both of these men - giving hope for desperately needed justice in real life.
Seeing McRae play Paul gives an understanding to the apparent charm of such men in power and gives insight into how they can get away with such conduct. A pertinent scene with the excellent Airlie Dodds details the rapid shifting of demeanour with Paul flashing from a jovial funny man, to someone fiercely threatening, characteristic of emotional abuse that accents a relationship of domestic violence. Jack Angwin gives a strong performance alongside McRae and Dodds, embodying the varying impacts of power, fame and influence on an individual. Charmaine Bingwa, Matthew Cheetham and Leilani Loau display versatility and comic flair as they each take on multiple contrasting roles, and often serve to lighten the mood of the work as a whole – though not without their own grappling with the issues at hand.
Skuse directs Stephens’ play with wit and candour, creating ultimately a fairly bleak picture. There’s a strong sense of futility as we observe the damage wrought upon every individual. It’s a cautionary tale really, expressed with sensitivity and a strong sense of humour –what else will keep you going in the grimmest of times?