If you feel in need of a transfusion of sheer exuberance, energy and colour, this production, performed by students on the BA (Hons) Acting degree course, fits the prescription. Directed by Claire Camble-Hutchins with verve, vigour and often tongue firmly in cheek, it starts thoughtfully as we are introduced to the premise behind Aristophanes’ comedy but, once the initial confrontation between mortals and birds triggers a frenzy of action, the pace never drops. Camble-Hutchins’ background as a dancer and choreographer suffuses the whole production, not just within those elements of dance that it features, but in all movement, individual or ensemble.
The play opens with two statuesque figures (as literally as possible but, alas, I’m not sure whom to credit for these disciplined and graceful performances) standing at the entrance to a set that looks, at first, all white but is subtly mottled with light shades of blue and grey. Into this setting, simple but making effective use of blocks, ladders and raised walkway, enter two mortals, citizens grown weary of life in BC Athens. As Peithairos, Bromich Edwards gives a performance that starts well and grows in strength, at the heart of just about everything that happens, full of assurance in terms both of the character’s ideas for a new society and the actor’s depiction of that character. Again, from the outset, he is ably supported, challenged and, at times, merely tolerated by Talia Walker’s Euelpidies. Both performances have to be convincing and sustained for any production to work: they are and it does.
And then there are the birds themselves. As with all aspects of the production – set, hair and make-up, stage management and front of house – wardrobe is in the hands of the cast’s fellow degree students, including those on the BA (Hons) Costume & Performance Design and Make-up for Media and Performance courses. The eleven members of the cast who represent the various birds inhabiting the territory between mortals and gods, later re-named Cloud-Cuckoo Land, form a vibrant flock of colourful squawks, screeches and shrill opinions galore. Ragged wings, bodies covered in costumes reminiscent of my long ago first visit to see a production of Godspell and strutting moves all give seamless and unobtrusive evidence of the attention to detail and the thought that lie behind the production; I imagine rehearsals must have been physically demanding but also, especially in the early stages, enormous fun.
Much of the success of the production is down to the quality of the ensemble work, the collective use of the acting space in the small (60-70 capacity?) studio theatre, and the rapidity with which the whole moves forward. At times, diction is not 100% successful but those moments are minimal in their impact as the population of birds, under the gleefully ostentatious and self-confident Tereus, their leader given another very enjoyable characterisation by Will Stanton, swoop, peck and at times squabble their way through the performance. Within that flock, every bird is differentiated, each embodying her/his particular species’ quirks and characteristics so successfully that to single out any for particular mention feels a disservice.
Once the new society is established, the bird community has to endure visits from interested representatives of the mortal and later the immortal realms, all doubled by members of the bird chorus. So, for example (he typed, immediately doing the disservice he sought to avoid!), Cameron Soeparto sheds his feathers to give us a delightful Poseidon, accompanied by Velizar Nikolov’s near-gormlessly comic Herakles, Seren Cave’s wiser Kinesias and Gianna Francesca Vescio’s Prometheus, all individually and collectively enjoyable. To that must be added Caitlin Florence-Rose’s gorgeously, but simply-clad Iris, all descending on behalf of an unseen but irately threatened Zeus.
Among the mortals, Velizar Nikolov’s John Cooper Clarkish (minus the accent) Poet prompts plenty of laughter, as does Cameron Soeparto’s mathematician Meton. Another notable performance – or range of performances – comes from Ruth Jakobovic as Priest, Messenger and Chorus, all three characterised by energy, clarity of diction and a delightful stage presence. As I’ve said, though, the whole thing relies on far more than one or two stand-out performances, with Katie Toon, Raven Essex and Sebastiana Andrade all excellent, as is Bri Tyler, the latter not least in showing, in her embodiment of Sovereignty, how stillness and silence can hold a stage – before she relents and, along with the whole cast, throws herself into the closing dance, a feast of wild abandonment and joyous celebration.
For the Greeks with whom these plays originated, such comedy provided an equal and equally worthy route to catharsis to that offered by tragedy, laughter matching tears. This production certainly brought many in the Friday night audience to their feet at its conclusion and the energy from the stage could be felt among all as they left the theatre afterwards. Oh, to be young again and to work with and among such talent! This production is just the first of six in quick succession. I’m looking forward to seeing as many as I am able to. The final two performances are on Saturday, October 26 at 3.00pm and 7.30pm, while the season continues with April De Angelis’ bawdy and vivacious take on Restoration Comedy, Playhouse Creatures (31 October – 2 November). But go to the AUB website and look for full details: there will be something for all tastes between now and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (5 – 7 December).