Rory O’Sullivan reviews The Birdwatcher’s Trip to Alpha Centauri
This show is highly ambitious and, in many ways, daft: it takes a lot of risks, most of which pay off. Sometimes it is so absorbing it could make you forget to breathe; sometimes it is warm and relaxed, sometimes bizarre. Its biggest problem is that in the end it does not quite finish what it begins, but overall, it is fascinating and at times even profound.
It features two men dressed in yellow fisherman’s raincoats and hats and red wellington boots playing music with sometimes one of them speaking poetry. A film plays behind them on a projector-screen of ships and the ocean, bridges, birds, clouds, colourful and abstract ambient-style shapes, and stars. There is no plot, but the piece begins with most of the last human beings on a spaceship leaving the earth.
Its ambition is great in two senses. The first is theatrical: it is a film, a poem, a musical sequence and a staged performance all at the same time. The second is thematic: it tries to turn the cycle of natural life, from beginning to end, into a symbol for something else. The poetry is high-style and full of repetition like it is imitating the Rig Veda: “This”, such poetry always says of whatever it speaks about, “‘is a symbol of the entire universe”.
It is hard to do that sort of thing while keeping an audience’s attention or respect. The reason it works here is that the sensibility behind the show is not an ideological but a sharp musical one. Nothing is about thought, and everything is about mood and image: what the poetry said mattered less than the feeling it evokes, and the music and film works together the same way.
The film and costumes presses the analogy metaphorical connection between a spaceship and a ship on the ocean, which works: it made the ocean seem as it does in Homer, who calls it the ‘empty sea.’ The sea became a lifeless abstraction of materials bobbing alone in the void, just as we imagine space now.
What distinguishes a musical sensibility is how it can move from one feeling to another: that journey is music. Here it is accomplishes by two means. The first is silence: the deep, slow, resonant sound of a huge ship, gradually falling into a complete soundlessness that made everyone sit back in their chairs. The technique did not wear out with repetition.
The second means is surprise: the new sound which emerges from the silence is different enough – but also similar enough – compared with the old sound that it is emotionally interesting.
The poetry is less successful because it quickly runs out of new images, and the repetition that so much characterises religious-style verse and music comes to feel in this script more like a scribe’s copying error than the chime of a six o’clock bell.
Poetically, the purpose of a repeated phrase is like a four-four drumbeat. It is a canvas whose outstretching makes possible the play of infinite variation.
What is profound in this sort of poetry when it is read out is that its naming of things one after another matches the perpetual creation and destruction of particulars in the cosmos: that is why most hymns involve lists. What the performance needs is to fill its lists with more images, appearing and disappearing as they are spoken, to make the poetry harmonise better with the rest of the piece.
The other, bigger problem is that the show did not see its arc all the way through. Humans leave, the earth and space are empty, and then the earth belongs to new, rudimentary (cellular) forms of life. This is a move from the end to the beginning of an arc which is clearly implied to run from the latter to the former.
The problem for the show is that when an arc runs from beginning to end, and from end back to beginning, it becomes a cycle. It would have been cheap and complacent to imagine the new forms of life burgeoning fully and taking the place of humans; so instead the show returns back to the scene of humans leaving the earth, and of an earth left behind by humans, with which it had begun.
But, with that choice, it is the audience who become locked in a complacent cycle: the middle third of the show has not brought them anything new because in the final part they are back where they were at the beginning.
The solution, I think, is to press the idea of a cycle of life on earth to the limit. Isn’t there something about the notion of things all repeating, again and again, that feels not easy or complacent, but appalling? Is the universe so-conceived anything more than a giant unyielding cosmic groundhog-day, tsious from start to finish, and start to finish once again?
That awful prospect is where the first half of the show primes the audience to be taken, and it is a shame the production did not bring them there. It does not need to end as despairingly as I am imagining, but in any case the confrontation with despair would have been illuminating.
The film made an excellent contribution to the show’s feelings because of the abstraction of its images. This falls away at the end with scenes recognisably shot in Bray: they spoil the fantasy.
But overall, this is a very well-constructed piece: interesting to watch, absorbing to listen to, full of transitions straddling the edge of sense,; and emotions that feel more true than whichever nouns or on-screen images contain them.
The next time this show runs, I recommend buying a ticket and smoking a joint half an hour before it starts – you would get double your money’s worth.
This play ran on 21 and 21 September at Dublin’s Fringe Festival