Visiting the Heslington East campus is a slightly odd experience for me.
It is still unfinished, of course, but walking around amongst the buildings feels a little like wandering through a set of architect’s graphics rather than actually being somewhere real. Once inside, however, there is a good feel to the place and the theatre space is excellent.
Black Box Theatre, Baird Lane, University of York
Till Sat Feb 4
I’ve come to see A Mouthful of Birds, the 1986 collaborative play written by Caryl Churchill and David Lan, performed and produced by students from the Uni’s Theatre, Film and Television Department (TFTV).
Churchill is one of Britain’s leading playwrights, noted for her exploration of sexual politics, feminist issues and the abuse of power. Lan is also a playwright, and has been the Young Vic’s Artistic Director since 2000.
Many of Churchill’s plays break free of traditional structure, and tonight’s is no exception. It draws on an Ancient Greek tragedy by Euripides, and covers a wide range of themes in a series of seven episodes.
The play also includes several short dance sequences, which fitted seamlessly and naturally into this production and helped the overall flow.
The individual stories of the characters are those of people going through difficult or extraordinary experiences including post-natal psychosis, a struggle with alcoholism, and female violence.
Some characters undergo profound changes of identity and have to question what worth can really be attached to one’s sense of who you think you are, such as a hermaphrodite girl who gradually becomes a man and a medium whose life falters when her connection to her spirit guide is unexpectedly broken.
Another theme of the play is that we always have the power to abuse someone else, but always have the choice about whether to abuse or not. As one character explains, “The power is what I like best in the world. The struggle is every day not to use it.”
At the end of the play, all of the characters return to the stage to tell the audience about how their lives subsequently played out.
I felt that the cast worked really well together, and that everything flowed. I was slightly thrown by what I felt to be a difference between the two halves of the play.
The first half seemed comparatively low-key, more a subtle drip-feed of ideas gradually accumulating into something much greater. But, for whatever reason, the second half immediately felt more visceral and emotionally raw, and it was during this section that I felt the play’s pull more acutely – particularly during the episodes involving the alcoholic and hermaphrodite characters.
Either way, however, the play thrives and the production was always coherent and involving.
With so many difficult and life-changing events happening to the characters, the audience is presented with much food for thought, and I know that the issues raised by this production will stay in my mind for some time yet.
To give just one example, the play’s portrayal of female violence upends the typical view of society, where the accepted norm is for industrial levels of male violence served up as entertainment by Hollywood, gaming manufacturers and the television industry.
There is so much of it that it has somehow become accepted as normal. At the same time, women are still generally typecast as the carers and nurturers who balance everything out.
In a dark twist on the idea of gender equality, the play asks how it would be if women were to become aggressors in the same way as men. Would it lead to a collapse into total chaos, or else act as a reality check to make society look again at its appetite for violence and finally turn away towards a more civilised way of living? And where does violence come from anyway?
TFTV have made an interesting choice in selecting this play. Thirty years after its first performance, the powerful subject matter remains entirely relevant, but staging it cannot have been without its challenges.
It is to the great credit of the TFTV students that they brought out the resonance of this complex piece without it ever feeling heavy-handed. The play continues its run until Saturday 4 February. You should go.