When I asked director Audun Kruger Abrahamsen why he wanted to put on Caryl Churchill and David Lan’s A Mouthful of Birds, he told me that he “wanted to take on a challenge that would both push [him] and create new experiences for people to explore a different type of theatre” which was kind of the answer I was looking for.
The play itself is, in my eyes, confusing, self-indulgent and contains worryingly outdated parallels between gender identity, sexuality, mental illness and violence. It follows seven different stories of people in a world like ours being possessed and overcome with obsession. However, it must be said, that if there is a way to do this play, Abrahamsen and his team have found it.
The opening to the play sets the tone for a disjointed but striking performance with Megan Davies as Dionysus entering in an uncomplicated but effective, monochromatic costume silhouetted by a bright light onto the abstract set created by Alexandra Gaunt and Carla-Jayne Cole.
The surreal set is used to create an otherworldly feel in tandem with excellent lighting by Sean Byrne and an original score by Scott Hurley. The play world created on stage by these design elements is distinctive and convincing, with no one element outshining the others, a real testament to the production team.
The cast is strong throughout, throwing themselves into the reality of the play with conviction. Stand out performances from George Doughty and Eliot Bayley, the latter displayed an incredible variety of strengths in acting and movement.
The choice of changing the Trinidadian immigrant medium Marcia, played by Ruby Sevink-Johnston, to a Yorkshire girl in London was perhaps the least delicately negotiated story line, but the performances of Sevink-Johnston and Kat Spencer made the vignette emotionally convincing enough that the vignette still played rather convincingly.
Other minor slip-ups include the lack of clear rules for audience interaction; in one interlude the actors dance around the stage miming eating, one actor offered the food to an audience member and this rule of including the audience in the world was promptly dropped and never picked up again. After that point, I was expecting to be allowed into the play world again but alas, the invitation never came.
The complicated and scattered structure of the play was well traversed between the cast’s excellent characterisation and the hard work of Byrne and Hurley to add extra dimensions of story-telling to this piece. But credit must be given to Alice Tones’ impressive costume design. The clothing tied characters together and followed the aesthetic of the play until it needed to break it, using colour like a weapon which complemented Byrne’s sparing use of colour extraordinarily well.
Even if you don’t “get” this kind of play, this production of A Mouthful of Birds is one not to miss. The dedication to creating a cohesive, immersive and emotive piece was clearly shared by every single person on the team. It is as beautiful as it is horrible to watch, creating a poignant and visceral experience that you won’t find elsewhere in York right now.
But it is difficult to see this production in isolation; the last productions in that space being the twin shows of The Wonderful World of Dissocia and Pomona, which were in turn preceded by Closer and the revival of On Ego and then Platform’s last major production Delirium last year. The last year of shows for the Black Box Theatre has seen some incredible talent, but not a lot of hope. Looking forward, it would be a welcome change of pace if there was a little less condemnation of the human condition in the space soon.