Left – Bert LaBonte and Mark Leonard Winter. Cover – Mark Leonard Winter, Socratis Otto and Anna Samson. Photos – Jeff Busby
UK playwright Simon Stephens has had a long fascination with the life of rock gods and the impact of massive commercial success. His protagonist in Birdland, rock star Paul (Mark Leonard Winter) is a bully, a brat and treats everyone around him appallingly. Fame and wealth have rotted Paul completely; he’s been surrounded by ‘yes men’ (and adoring women) to the point where he despises everyone, yet believes he’s entitled to anything, including Marnie, the girlfriend (Anna Samson) of his best mate and fellow band member, Johnny (Socratis Otto). Jaded to the point where he no longer even enjoys performing, Paul has come to inhabit an amoral world where he can buy everything he wants and no-one will refuse him anything.
There is a slow start to this production of Simon Stephens’s wordy play (directed by Leticia Cáceres), which doesn’t help with lack of engagement with the characters. Winter as Paul delivers a superficial softness and a real menace which would work wonderfully were he playing a manipulative narcissist in an everyday setting, but from this character you want more of a sense of how he became so huge – the aura of glamour you’d expect to surround him is missing. Most likely the point direction is making is that he was nothing special to begin with, but the play falls short in assuming Paul’s level of celebrity.
Bert LaBonté offers some stand-out turns as various characters including Paul’s dad, a Scottish fan, and Paul’s manager. There is a thoroughly enjoyable moment where Paul gets his come-uppance via a pair of WPCs although this scene is a tad too long. Peta Sergeant is grounded as Jenny, a character who holds on to her integrity. Marnie’s fate is not well-enough foreshadowed and is too clearly in service to the plot. One satisfyingly sinister scene sees Paul and Jenny visit Marnie’s parents in Paris, the point where the level of his sadism is fully revealed. Set design involves a large soulless generic space which could be a changing room, the basement of a hotel, a conference space or any green room at any television studio. Glamour is suggested by a bath on stage which is ceremoniously filled up by a liveried butler in one of the production’s symbolic pop-up moments. Set design doesn’t serve the play despite the ‘anywhereness’ of it indicating a spiritual no-man’s land.
This production is let down by an evenness in tone which robs it of necessary dramatic tension, and by an approach which is neither realist or heightened theatrically, opting for the former with break–out moments of symbolism. The real problem, though, lies in the overloaded script – there is much wonderful dialogue but too much of it.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by Simon Stephens
Director Leticia Cáceres
Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
Dates: 6 June – 11 July 2015
Tickets: $36 – $106
Bookings: 03 8688 0800 | mtc.com.au