Brighton Fringe 2012
I’m writing this the day after I saw ‘And No Birds Sing’, and yet in many ways the performance still isn’t over. I’ve spent the morning making mental connections among many of the things I saw and heard last night, chasing up references on Google, and putting a (literally) museum-full of impressions into some sort of order.
Strange Beast have staged this show at The Booth Museum very much as a site-specific production, making full use of the exhibits and of the museum space itself. The Museum houses Edward Booth’s nineteenth century collection of taxidermy and preserved animals – stuffed birds, dried insects and mounted skeletons – housed in long narrow aisles of high-stacked glass cases. It’s done in promenade, and our group of about a dozen was led, following the action, past all those silent bodies…
At the start we met Booth himself – James Lloyd Pegg, who also conceived and directed the show – and he looked very much the Victorian collector-scientist with a long dark coat, fingerless gloves, muffler and thin-rimmed spectacles. As Curator, he took us deeper into the building and it was while examining the bird cases that we first heard the wailing and the screeches… Five women, in long Victorian dresses, stumbled and lurched along the aisles and pressed themselves up against the cases. Arms twisted, heads askew, taxidermy labels hanging round their necks, they seemed to represent the spirits of the stuffed birds.
For this production is all about death – a subject which obsessed the Victorians. As we were guided past the display cases there was music, long haunting chords echoing through the usually silent museum. One of the women/spirits pointed out the birds’ plumage, muttering – "Amethyst, for Devotion. Emerald, for Hope. Lapis Lazuli,for Truth – and Black Amber, for Mourning". Another of the women was contemplating an owl, stiff and blue-lit in its case – "nothing moves for this lonely hunter…under silent moonlight, under stars". Later we passed through a gallery of moths, case after case of small dried corpses, some drab, some brilliantly coloured, and their common names – "Each moth has a name" intoned the Curator – reverberated through the space as the five women peered in at them and made moth-shapes with their hands against the glass.
The whole piece is steeped in the nineteenth century. One of the women gave us lines that brought to mind Lewis Carroll – "My bird had a mirror, she never felt alone. She spent a lot of time with her friend on the other side of the glass", and another quoted Emily Dickinson – "Hope is the thing with feathers / that perches on the soul (Thanks, Google!). Charles Darwin’s ghost surely hovered over one of the women as she delivered lines standing next to the skeleton of a large primate as tall as she was. When I had seen the shuffling bird-women my first impression had been of Zombies, and then of course I realised they were meant to be spirits, but by the end of the performance I saw them also as the shambling half-human creations of H G Wells’ mad scientist – Dr Moreau.
So far, so site-specific; but there are more intricate connections. The Curator, as taxidermist, talked about creating a Mermaid out of bits of other specimens, and passing it off as real – "I assembled her so carefully, did all I could to ensure that she was recognised in only the most distinguished zoological circles". This immediately brought to mind the Booth Museum’s own Merman, the nineteenth century fake with a monkey’s head that is probably their weirdest exhibit. But on reflection, I thought too of Piltdown Man, the fake ‘missing link’ fossil with skull and jaw from different species, which fooled ‘the most distinguished zoological circles’ for years. It turns out that Piltdown (where it was ‘found’) is only twelve miles north of Brighton…
"Who would be a Mermaid fair? " asks the Curator, and (Thanks to Wikipedia for this one). we’re led to Tennyson’s poem ‘The Mermaid’. Tennyson also wrote ‘Mariana in the South’ which has the line- "I sleep forgotten, I wake forlorn". The Curator quotes this as he contemplates an empty bird cage and talks about the Pre-Raphaelite artist’s model with hair ‘like spun copper’, who died alone and addicted to drugs. He’s talking about Lizzie Siddal, but he doesn’t actually mention Siddal by name, so we don’t know which artist’s model he’s talking about – of which more below.
Lizzie Siddal is the central motif that holds this production together. She was model for Millais, who painted her as Ophelia, model and wife to Rossetti, who drew her as ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’, which was also a poem by Keats, and has the lines – "The sedge has withered on the lake, And no birds sing."
Which, of course, is the title of this production – that one line, hovering on the edge of recognition, waiting for something to put it into context. It could have simply meant the stuffed birds in their cases, but now it triggered a host of new associations. None of this was made obvious during the performance, but as we left we were handed a programme sheet which referred to Siddal, and how Rossetti – ‘became convinced that her soul had migrated into a bird’s song’. Lizzie was depressive and addicted to laudanum (essentially opium), and spent time in Brighton recovering from illness, so there’s a local connection too. Once we had the key, all the seemingly unrelated performance elements began to slot into place.
So does it work as theatre? The women look good in their Victorian dresses, but close-up in promenade it’s hard to keep up the effect of otherworldliness. Too often the action looked stagy and the illusion was lost. Several of my fellow audience members commented on that later. More importantly, I think it was a mistake to save the material on Lizzie Siddal until the very end, in fact till we were leaving. A lot of the earlier scenes would have made much more sense if she had been a central theme running through the production. Strange Beast have made very imaginative use of the museum environment and its contents, and I loved looking up the references and making discoveries and connections, but I wonder – how many other audience members will be doing the same?. This could have been a production that really got us involved, but an audience can only be fully committed if it’s given enough information to work with.