Exactly 25 years prior to the opening night of our staging of A Mouthful of Birds here at VCA, the original production opened at the Sherman Theatre in Cardiff at the halfway point of its initial UK tour. A quarter of a century, and several generations of theatre makers later, Churchill and Lan’s text is still fresh, irreverent, challenging and not for the fainthearted. Maybe the play’s full-bloodedness is drawn from the roots of theatre, from The Bacchae of Euripides which it references heavily, and which was first performed 2416 years ago in Athens. There is something old being told by means of this fresh telling, tales of Dionysos, Greek god of wine, epiphany and ritual madness. Something that speaks to ravage our perennial urge towards conformity with grunts and whines that loosen the yoke of the polite, the civil, the trained, the utilitarian, the knowable, the linguistic, the safe, the domestic and ultimately, our concern for anything beyond the present moment. Dionysos and the terrific revels he represents remains the undoing of our civilisation ostensibly built on a rule of law and mastery over nature. And in our increasingly sanitised environments, our sheltered minds and withering bodies need more than virtual work and commercial urges. More than ever we need Dionysos to save us from ourselves and our tyrannical inventions that further remove us from our corporeal, animal, ecstatic and sensory lives.
With its repeating scenes, forty named characters, presentation of multiple realities (often at the same time), episodic structure and descriptions of group choreography, the nature of A Mouthful of Birds does not become apparent until it explored in rehearsal. Even reading the script a number of times does not reveal all of the play’s logic, which builds on visual as well as linguistic significance to make meaning. The text is an artefact from a collaborative process between actors, director and writers. And this is what drew me too it; a palpable sense of exploring the liveness of theatre, beyond its literariness. One feels the similarity to choreography where a dance is created ‘on’ the dancers. In this case the characters are created around the actors in the original team. In a similar vein, this production works around and on the 11 actors on stage. This affords new possibilities like, for example, the presence of Dionysos throughout the piece as opposed to intermittently. Further, it allows us to recreate a similarly collaborative process, not with the writers, but with the actor’s bodies and voices, sound composition, light, costume and set to create our own full-blooded total theatre work.
The development period for this production has been greatly advantaged by extraordinary collaboration between all the production departments, the cast and crew. The set has been gradually installed over the seven weeks of rehearsal in the Grant Street Theatre. This has meant that the choreography could be developed on the set. The designers and crew make offers to the actors in the form of a playground, and the actors subsequently fully explore it and make their own suggestions and requests. The other great advantage of working within the theatre throughout rehearsal is that Robert Jordan the sound designer has been able to create the amazing music for the show during rehearsal, often by improvising with the actors and being part of all discussions.
Developing the staging concept for A Mouthful of Birds has meant creating a unified world from which the fictional characters emerge but which the actors can also be present in without their characters. Instead of lots of little settings for each of the short scenes, we required one site, the ‘base’ reality of the world of the play. This is the theatre itself. I asked Mattea Davies, the set designer, to imagine the GST before it was used as a theatre. Then that the building had been left derelict with a hole in the roof for 25 years causing the first floor to collapse onto the ground. It is into this space that the actors are drawn by Dionysos, literally into an old, decaying theatre. The actors arrive as the audience do, drawn to this space to witness a ritual. It is from this reality that we depart into the lives of the characters. We come to understand what brought them here. Between their stories we see Dionysos toying with the actors, plying them with delights, ravishing their senses, building them to what Churchill describes as a point of ‘horrific murder and possession, something not invented by us or Euripedes… something that bursts from the past into these people open to possession.’ And so the actors themselves are the subjects of spirits; possessed by the characters they play. Forced to relive fateful moments of rage, violence and terror, but also of extreme happiness, delight and love, until worn smooth by feeling, they turn on each other for the ultimate experience; being torn limb from limb, tearing limb from limb.