Thursday, 25 October 2012

 You believe a man can fly

The other day, I saw the most wonderful stage show. The only reason I didn’t post anything before was that the run was so short it would have finished by the time you read my post. As an Arts Council funded thing — research and development only — it was only on for a few days, at Jacksons Lane in Highgate. Maybe, if everyone is lucky, it will be put on again, maybe for longer.


It was Birdy, an adaptation of the William Wharton novel which was the basis of the Nicholas Cage movie. 


The story is, roughly, this: WW2 US paratroop gets shot up, goes to hospital with childhood friend who was with him in unit and also badly injured; ‘hero’ decides he’s a bird; he might be psychotic, he might be pretending, he might really be able to fly, you kind of decide; at the end, he is better; as a viewer, you are happy for him (not to mention relieved) but you are, thankfully, none the wiser as to the ‘reality’ of his ‘illness’ — or flying technique.

This show was what I guess is called physical theatre. The meaning is, more often than not, in the motion rather than the locution. For someone with my background and inclinations, this kind of stuff was a big challenge for a very long time. Why walk when you can talk?

This, though, was something else.

Declaration of interest: the co-director is a friend, Mitch Mitchelson.

Anti-declaration of interest: Mitch is a ‘circus skills’ expert and teacher: my take on the idea of ‘circus skills’ has up to now been to giggle, if quietly and up my sleeve when Mitch was around. (He’s a big bloke. And even bigger on a pair of stilts.)

Simply, reader, I was wrong. In the right hands, ‘circus skills’ and ‘physical theatre’ become something else entirely. As I watched, I felt that thing you rarely feel — childhood wonder. This was something I was seeing for the first time and it was a joyous revelation.

I remember taking my daughter to see a panto for the first time. Her ex-nanny was performing in it, playing a fairy. When the nanny fairy began to fly, my daughter started crying. I had to take her out to the lobby and distract her for the rest of the show while her older brother took it all in his stride. She had, I guess, been foxed by the transgression of reality. Real nannies can’t really fly. But this one had. Logical and emotional certainties had been upended.

Here, in Jacksons Lane, I was also confronted by a someone who could fly. It was extraordinary. There was none of that jumping up and hoping for the best rubbish you normally see with Peter Pan etc — people on wires flapping about, stupidly and boringly. He really convinced that he was learning to fly. We were in the front row and he flew out over us. I was so certain he could fly I wasn’t even worried that he’d crash into us.

There was also trick-cycling and pole-dancing in the show. Nothing like you might see down the Hackney Rd on a late Friday night, though. Not that the girls down there couldn’t have learned a thing or two from the way this (male) pole dancer could walk up it and drop down. Honestly, if it had been a different crowd, he would have quite a few fivers tucked down his shorts. 


Maybe even an Adam Smith* or two. (Oh, apparently, it’s not called pole-dancing but Chinese pole. It’s still pole-dancing, though.)



I’ve seen all this kind of stuff before, in old-fashioned circuses and the Cirque du Soleil etc. I was always impressed by the physical wonders of what they were doing, but left empty with a kind of: so what? This was something else, though. Here, the movement had meaning and emotion. It was like watching quality dance — Matthew Bourne, for example — or Pina Bausch on her day.


The movements were not just wondrous in themselves but they were invested with thought and possibilities. It was circus skills used to express meaning. It was theatre in a new — to me, anyway — language. Not English or French or ancient Greek but fluent Circus-ish.

* The great economist’s profile is on £20 notes.

Next The fatman sings (having put heroin and prison behind him)

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