Skip to main content

Firebrand Theatre - Blackbird

When David Harrower's play, Blackbird, first appeared at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2005 in a production by German maestro, Peter Stein, it provoked shock-waves among audiences who witnessed it. Given that Harrower's play was a blistering study of a reunion between a fifty-five year old man and a twenty-seven year old woman who had a sexual relationship fifteen years before when the woman was twelve, such a reaction was understandable.

However serious a dissection of an ambiguous liaison the play undoubtedly was, it was the production's closing scene that proved the most jaw-dropping. In contrast to the play's over-riding intimacy, Stein grafted on an unscripted five-minute finale in which the office block store-room where the action took place was transformed into an underground car park. Here, an actual car was driven onstage as the play's two protagonists wrestled to a power ballad soundtrack, so the whole thing resembled a 1980s MTV video epic.

Given the venues for the Borders-based Firebrand Theatre's new production of Blackbird, this experience is unlikely to be repeated. Rather, by having his actors perform the play in actual office space and a small studio theatre as well as the former veterinary demonstration room in Edinburgh's Summerhall venue, director Richard Baron is getting back to the claustrophobic emotional heart of the play as Harrower wrote it.

“Blackbird works for Firebrand,” Baron says. “Yes, it's a two-hander, and yes, it only has one setting, but more importantly, it seems to fit in with the other work we've done. It's intimate, it's brilliantly written, and I think as a play it's probably even more contemporary now than it was when it was first done. There's stuff coming out in the press every day about various court cases, and there are people coming out of the woodwork, some honourably, others not, who are talking about issues which aren't that removed from some of the issues raised in the play.

“With all that in mind, Blackbird struck me as a strong contemporary play that could take an audience on a journey. So it's a bit of a risk in some ways, but when we did another David Harrower play, 54% Acrylic, we did it as a Play, Pie and A Pint, with the audience sat at tables in a function room, and we realised how well that worked. I think Blackbird works in the same way, so when the violence and sex scenes happen, the audience are only five feet away, and the play really is in their face. By taking it to these private spaces as well, it feels like you're in a prison cell or a dungeon, so it becomes very much a symbolic backdrop to the play.”

Blackbird perhaps isn't the obvious choice for a small, rural-based company like Firebrand, which was founded by co-artistic directors Janet Coulson and Ellie Zeegan in 2011. With Baron as director of productions and designer Edward Lipscomb an associate artist, Firebrand set out to produce contemporary theatre of a kind not often seen in areas more used to seeing more obviously commercial fare onstage.

With this in mind, Firebrand launched with a production of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads, which was followed by a revisitation of David Greig's short play, Being Norwegian. This was followed by a look sat David Mamet's controversial two-hander, Oleanna and revivals of Rona Munro's prison-set Iron, Peter Arnott's neglected White Rose and 54% Acrylic.

“There is an audience in Hawick for contemporary theatre like this,” Baron observes. “We're still building that, but there are some people who've come to our shows who've never been to the theatre in their lives, and in post-show discussions, what comes across is the intelligence of the audience and a real desire for the sort of work we're putting on.”

Next on the agenda for Baron and Firebrand is a new production of David Greig's play, Outlying Islands, which Baron describes as “another intimate play that throws up all sorts of different themes that still matter. In contemporary Scottish theatre there seem to be lots of those.”

None perhaps more so than Blackbird.

“Blackbird has an emotional heart in the way a lot of American plays do,” says Baron. “There's a beating heart to it, and there's blood on the carpet. These are ordinary people, who've been through these things that we've all been through, like falling in love, but this leaps a barrier. “

Blackbird, Heart of Hawick, Hawick, February 20-22; The Space, Heriot Watt/Borders College, February 24; Summerhall, Edinburgh, February 26-March 1.

The Herald, February 18th 2014


ends

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Honourable K.W. Harman: Ltd Ink Corporation

31 Bath Road, Leith Docks, March 17th-20th

In a monumental shipping container down by Leith Docks, a Sex Pistols tribute band is playing Anarchy in the U.K.. on a stage set up in the middle of the room. Either side, various constructions have been built in such a way so viewers can window shop as they promenade from one end of the room to the next, with the holy grail of a bar at either end.

Inbetween, there’s a confession booth and a mock-up of a private detective’s office with assorted documentation of real-life surveillance pinned to the walls. Two people seem to be having a conversation in public as if they're on a chat show. An assault course of smashed windows are perched on the floor like collateral damage of post-chucking out time target practice. A display of distinctively lettered signs originally created by a homeless man in search of a bed for the night are clumped together on placards that seem to be marking out territory or else finding comfort in being together. Opp…

The Maids

Dundee Rep

Two sisters sit in glass cases either side of the stage at the start of Eve Jamieson's production of Jean Genet's nasty little study of warped aspiration and abuse of power. Bathed in red light, the women look like artefacts in some cheap thrill waxworks horror-show, or else exhibits in a human zoo. Either way, they are both trapped, immortalised in a freak-show possibly of their own making.

Once the sisters come to life and drape themselves in the sumptuous bedroom of their absent mistress, they raid her bulging wardrobe to try on otherwise untouchable glad-rags and jewellery. As they do, the grotesque parody of the high-life they aspire to turns uglier by the second. When the Mistress returns, as played with daring abandon by Emily Winter as a glamour-chasing narcissist who gets her kicks from drooling over the criminal classes, you can't really blame the sisters for their fantasy of killing her.

Slabs of sound slice the air to punctuate each scene of Mart…

Nomanslanding

Tramway, Glasgow until July 2nd
Four stars

In the dead of night, the audience are split in two and led under-cover into lamp-lit tented structures. Inside, what look like peasant women on the run lead us down a ramp and into a large circular pod. It feels part cathedral, part space-ship, and to come blinking into the light of such a fantastical structure after stumbling in the dark disorientates and overwhelms. Sat around the pod as if awaiting prayers to begin, we watch as performers Nerea Bello and Judith Williams incant mournfully on either side of the room. Their keening chorales embark on a voyage of their own, twisting around each other by way of the international language of singing. As if in sympathy, the walls wail and whisper, before starting to move as those on either side of the pod are left stranded, a gulf between them.

This international co-commission between Glasgow Life and the Merchant City Festival, Sydney Harbour Foreshaw Authority in Australia and Urbane Kienste …