Summer festivals, such as the Fringe or Summerworks, have been a fertile breeding ground for very accomplished plays and productions that have gone on to have an expanded life. The Drowsy Chaperone comes to mind. The latest play to come out of Summerworks with an expanded life is IF WE WERE BIRDS. It takes a Greek myth and gives it a contemporary application. Our theatre critic Lynn Slotkin was at the opening last night and is here to tell us how this new version did.
Hi Lynn. You saw this play when it was first done at Summerworks. What was so appealing about it?
When it played at Summerworks in 2008 I picked it as one of my top five shows of the festival.
Playwright Erin Shields has taken a tale from OVID (Roman Poet) full of passion, emotion, lust, and drive, and given it an equally vivid contemporary application. It’s a gripping story. And its scope and Shields’ writing gifts made the story fly. The writing is both poetic and muscular, the images are vivid, breathtaking and heart-squeezing. The production takes you gently by the throat and doesn’t let go or let you look away. All of that is repeated in this expanded version of the play.
What’s the story?
It’s based on the story of Procne and her younger sister Philomela.
They are daughters of a king who gives Procne as a prize bride to the war hero King Tereus of Thrace. Tereus wants to take his bride home with him. This means that Procne must leave her beloved sister Philomela. Time passes. Procne is happy with this macho, fighting man. But she pines for Philomela and begs Tereus to bring her for a visit.
He relents—he’d rather go to war– “he breathes war” is one stunning line that describes him. And when he sees Philomela, he is smitten. Actually he’s in lust but he contains himself until after the voyage. After that he can’t help himself. He rapes her. He makes sure she won’t talk and keeps her prisoner deep in the woods. The truth eventually gets out with terrible results.
It’s from Greek mythology—no happy ending, but there is a magical ending.
How is the play made contemporary?
There is a chorus of five women who comment on the action and occasionally participate in it, and are watchful. They are witnesses to history.
One woman talks about being a victim of ethnic cleansing. Another talks about being raped by soldiers. And we realize it’s the story of the conflicts of the 20th century. Erin Sheilds references Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Nanking, Berlin, and Bangladesh. But it could be any conflict and not just confined to those five.
Sheilds’ language is immediate and contemporary but also mixes classical references. Philomela says that she was dropped like something half-eaten. That is such a vivid image and the play is full of them. The play is pulsing with life and emotions regardless of the harshness of the behaviour. Characters crawl towards life… stunning image again.
Does the production live up to your memories of the Summerworks version?
Yes and then some. It’s directed again by Alan Dilworth, surely one of our most accomplished directors. He has such a clear, precise vision of how to realize the elegance, poetry and brutality of the play that is compelling. He has faith in the writing and lets that and his fine actors realize each second without fuss or embellishment.
Gripping scenes are not cluttered with musical underscoring—I’m so grateful for that. The acting as I said is very fine. As Procne, Philippa Domville evolves from an innocent young girl to a graceful sexual woman who knows how to tame her man. As Tereus, Geoff Pounsett is all swagger, confidence and force. And Tara Rosling as Philomela is shattering. She is a sweet girl turned into a wounded woman and then a revenging one.
It’s a performance full of heart, brains, emotions and guts. When I saw the play in a shorter version at Summerworks I called it astonishing. It still is.
It’s a theatrical gift and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
IF WE WERE BIRDS plays at the Tarragon Theatre until May 23. The theatre is wheelchair accessible.