Birdland – The power and problems of The Audience. (Theatre Review)
New Theatre 3 October – 4 November
A critical feature of contemporary culture is the power of The Audience to divide and differentiate the socius. Birdland by Simon Stephens is a modern-day character study of a particular celebrity, his moral corruption at the hands of fame, money and power and his subsequent fall. However, in the hands of Anthony Skuse, the production becomes something far deeper, with emphasis on the signifier (Paul) and how he appears as the signified image of celebrity (the sign) even to himself. Crucial to this interpretation is the role of The Audience and its power to rival and indeed surpass the power of the categories of class and mass. Paul (Graeme McRae) has become more successful (more famous, richer) as time progresses. He claims this based on statistics. Analisa (Charmaine Bingwa) challenges his notions of success, claiming a deterioration in quality of music. Anthony Skuse places great emphasis on this conversation, turning it toward the audience, moving slowly to the front of the sloped stage. We experience the burden of decision as the audience decides through action who is famous and who is not.
Time reflects ghosting and Paul’s body being continually recycled by an audience with a memory. By moving characters past and present into the off-stage realms of the performance, Anthony Skuse presents Paul as the signifier of the signified image of himself, as well as The Celebrity, but it is the categorical and formative power of The Audience at the centre of narrative. Indeed, the category of celebrity correlates with the rise of The Audience as a social category, and both are integrated intimately with the development of consumer culture. This specific relationship is realized at the convergence within the celebrity sign of individual expression and personality within a constructed collective. Paul’s audience gather at his feet in worship, but it is to celebrate themselves as unique. This experience feeds off the collective, but is essentially individuated. It is inside this sign/signifier loop that Paul loses his way. Anthony Skuse takes the real experience of Paul’s human connections, and floats them in and out of the role of The Audience. Paul loses his ego orientation to his inability to differentiate within his present. As Paul forgets, The Other of The Real stares at him with confusion and emerging horror, while his own ghosts join The Audience in judgement.
One of Capitalists great accomplishments has been the reconfiguring of the descriptions of mass. Signifiers based primarily on work forged the categorical legitimacy of class conception, and forced people to see themselves within a class. It was this that allowed Marx and Engels to have faith in revolutionary transformation, believing a ‘working class’ would rise up against the ‘captains of industry.’ Over time, the mass as a social category is (arguably) more rightly a construction of collective social identity in terms of nonwork or the use of leisure time. Where class indicates a social identity of production, the category of mass can define social identity in terms of consumption. To quote David Marshall  “…the capitalist project in the twentieth century has been to work intensely to position and differentiate the category of the mass into recognizable and relatively stable categorical configurations of consumption practices.” Through mass-mediated culture, audiences are constructed and defined by the type of programming that is offered. Program and advertisement of product are complementary rhetorical devices in the construction of audiences as consumers. The Audience’s temporality and fluidity, and its blurring of the lines of class and wealth, are all valuable constitutive elements that work in the maintenance of a continuous consensus concerning the function of capitalism as an effective system of satisfying wants and needs. Within this is an appeal to an indivuated personality. The media, operating as a type of ideological state apparatus, offer images with which the viewer can identify. Lois Althusser calls this process “interpellation” or hailing, where the subject is temporarily positioned or called by the cultural text to see herself or himself as having a relational reality to the text. To bring this back to Simon Stephens Birdland, Paul is created by the audience; process and product he both represents and is. He exists within an ideological state over which he has no control. He is ‘fed’ (money, drugs, flattery) by the machine to give the illusion of control, but separated from his agency he stops seeing The Other as human. (He no longer sees himself as human, why any of those around him?) Anthony Skuse interposes any relation with the all-seeing eye of The Audience, so Paul is left to flail in responsiveness. He is no longer human, driven only by short term intensity of emotion. Even his father can no longer reach him.
The inability of celebrity to handle power is evident in the presidency of Donald Trump. Retrospectively errors are pretended to be successes by his vigilant fan base, but the damage to the country by electing a reality TV star (even one re-branded as a savvy businessman) to the presidency contributes to the recognition of the United States as a ‘super power’ in decline. Talk is of countering him (at the next election) with Tom Hanks or Oprah, as if only a bigger celebrity can counter the commercial power the celebrity has over The Audience. Social media has more power to convince, and we look to names like Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber for guidance. The career politician is painted as inherently corrupt, while the celebrity is imagined to be free to act. We imagine as Australian’s we are separate and superior (Australian’s love to condescend to Americans) but Kevin Rudd used the same tactics of celebrity for great success in 2007. Simon Stephens does not ask us to consider Paul’s individuality in Birdland, but the impact following him has on our sovereignty.
This production currently showing at New Theatre in Sydney is complicated and thought provoking. Sitting with Simon Stephens character is no easy thing (he is deeply unpleasant) and Anthony Skuse spares us nothing, but stretching toward the production (rather than recoiling) offers many rewards. Anthony Skuse uses each character (with the exception of Johnny and Jenny) in a repeat rotation, revealing the endless cycle of The Other and how they eventually blend into one. Yet the excellent performances of Charmaine Bingwa, Matthew Cheetham, Louise Harding and Leilani Loau ground us in the intensity and personal nature of the individual. We see them as separate even as we know Paul sees them as blending each into the other. Airlie Dodds and Jack Angwin provide pivotal characters with keys to Paul’s salvation that he will refuse. Even they are Jenny and Johnny, blended by alliteration. Both performances are powerful, emotionally connected, emphasizing the disbelief in the people close to Paul’s Real Life self. Graeme McRae is a powerhouse as Paul, his charisma and relentless ugliness merging to shock us into recognition. We know this animal because we all follow one.
Action takes place on an opulent but broken, tilted stage by set designer Jack Millynn and costumes by Brodie Simpson act to merge characters and halt individuating properly. Anthony Skuse directs with a firm hand, displaying a confidence in his opportunities with the script, using the broad stage to indicate size and scope of The Audience and the smallness of Paul caught inside his empty self. This is a thrilling, challenging production that begs for interpretation and recognition. Another great night of theatre in Sydney.
 Marshall, David Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture. U of Minnesota Press, 1997