The Birds by Conor McPherson


McPherson's play

From the original text, McPherson takes only the birds' tidal attacks and the character's name (Nat). But his text explores a very different world, equally mysterious and unexplained.

Du Maurier's story

On an average day of December, farmhand Nat Hocken he notices a large flock of birds gathering nearby, but thinks little of it. Over the next few days the swarms of birds grow exponentially and start attacking people, and the tale focuses more and more intensely on Nat's family's struggles to survive, to build the sense of isolation and claustrophobia they feel inside their dwelling, until the end comes.

It has been said that the east wind which was the alleged cause of the birds' behaviour was metaphorically connected to the threat of communism and the still fresh memories of the Blitz.

Richard Kelly, in his article on du Maurier for Twayne's English Authors Series Online notes, "by limiting the focus of her story upon Nat Hocken and his family, du Maurier manages to convey the effect of a believable claustrophobic nightmare."

"It's the beginning of a story set in the countryside in Cornwall after the Second World War. Birds start to attack people. A family is holed up in a house. They don't know how much food they have-and then the story ends. I wanted to have a play about people locked in a house, but I didn't want them to know each other-so in my version they've broken into this abandoned house. It's a man and a woman who begin working together to survive. This is oversimplifying it, but I think about the man as a sperm, linear, and the woman as an egg." (Conor McPherson)

From The Independant of September 24, 2009, by Colin Murphy

Another writer who may be asking questions is Conor McPherson, who follows a string of successes on Broadway with a new play for The Gate, an adaptation of The Birds by Daphné Du Maurier.

This was seen as a vivid allegory for the paranoia and claustrophobia of the Cold War. Will that resonate with an audience despairing of Ireland's economic future?

The Gate's director, Michael Colgan, plays down any symbolic significance. Mr McPherson, he said, is a "great storyteller" and his version of The Birds is primarily "a love story and a thriller".

From The Irish Theatre Magazine, September 30, 2009, by Fintan Walsh

Based on Daphne du Maurier's short story, The Birds (1952), which inspired Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 film of the same title, Conor McPherson's new play is set in an isolated lakeside house, sometime, somewhere in the present. Relative strangers Nat (Hinds) and Diane (Cusack) have taken refuge in the abandoned dwelling, seeking sanctuary from the winged beasts that have been killing all around them. The corpse of a recent victim must first be removed from upstairs before they can settle in, but even then there is no chance of getting comfortable. The electricity is down, supplies are low, and the gulls rise, ritualistically, with the tides. Soon, fear of the outside world breeds paranoia of internal relations, and the arrival of young Julia (Gough), complicates what was presumed to be a battle with nature.

While du Maurier's Cornish tale of invasion resonates with a post second World War climate, and Hitchcock's Californian adaptation is replete with psychosexual anxiety, McPherson's version seems to be more interested in a writer's role in making sense of a chaotic world. Given the preoccupations of plays such as The Weir and Shining City, this is perhaps no surprise. While Nat is the protagonist of the short story, Diane is very much the focus of this work. It is she who tries to manage the crisis, and it is she who endeavours to make sense of it all in her journal entries.

While Diane writes, a voiceover reveals her most intimate thoughts. Initially, these reflections revolve around the daughter with whom she has fallen out, and the birds that swoop overhead. Eventually she turns her mind to the people with whom she now lives. Throughout the play, it emerges that she and her accidental family have devoted so much attention to erecting barriers between people and worlds (private and public, imagined and real) that the increasingly intensified inner sphere in which they live is set to implode. Nat and Julia turn to each other for comfort, and Diane turns to her page.

Diane suddenly begins to contemplate murder when she learns of Julia's surprise pregnancy, reasoning there is a difference between controlling something creatively with words, and mastering it with brute force in real life. "Once you have killed it calls you again," she writes, until you can no longer resist "the giddy enthusiasm of murder". And even though Diane challenges Julia's literal interpretation of her journal entries, she too comes to actualize her creative desire by barring up the windows and doors when Julie leaves to find Nat.

Rae Smith's design is realistic and detailed, although there is so much to see in the living space that it is all too easy to forget about the birds. On one occasion, we can see them pelt against the grimy windows, but more often than not we are reliant upon a rumbling, reverberating soundscape to remind us.

While the performances certainly warm up in the second half, often it feels as if Cusack and Hinds struggle to take ownership of McPherson's language. It is hard to say a line such as the one Diane delivers to Julia - "Everyone in the world is dead. I've enough to worry about" - while setting the kitchen table, and still be taken seriously. More troublesome, however, is that the script feels unnecessarily stretched out, and there is little richness in the dialogue until the very end, when Diane pauses to consider God and the universe. But even these grand sentiments feel a bit insincere.

Moreover, the first half feels like an endless assembly of short, patchy scenes. When we are led to believe that the birds are still the focus of the action, rather than the internal relationships, or indeed the artist's role, this is bearable; but when the evocative threat of the birds recedes from focus, the dialogue struggles to keep us engaged with the performance. This absence of tension or texture is notable in much of the delivery too, which is often loose and jittery, and the undisciplined Irish idiom struggles to draw us into such an unlikely fiction.

When a small flock of birds shoot across the stage at the end of the performance, they elicit more coos than ahs. The effect is cute rather than terrifying, but after spending over two and-a-half hours in the theatre threatened with man-eating gulls, you're bound to feel a bit ruffled when all you get is a few homing pigeons. Still, this closing gesture manages to encapsulate a core difficulty with a play that hovers uneasily between a psychological study and an altogether more banal domestic drama.

From The Independant Thursday, October 1st, 2009, by Colin Murphy

MY two-year-old daughter is obsessed with a children's book about a family going on a bearhunt. She adores it, but freezes with terror each time it's read to her.

The Birds is an adult equivalent. Conor McPherson's play, inspired by Daphne du Maurier's iconic short story, is deliciously chilling.

McPherson's staccato scenes have the same effect as the strings on the score of Hitchcock's Psycho, which is a similar effect to that of nails being dragged across a blackboard. They are spring-loaded with tension, a tension only very rarely relieved, through comedy, in the entire two hours. The effect is exhausting, but exhilarating.

Beautifully designed by Rae Smith, The Birds takes place entirely in the parlour of an old country home, where two strangers have sought refuge from the onslaught of the birds (Ciarán Hinds and Sinéad Cusack, pitch perfect). When a younger woman joins them sometime later (Denise Gough, stunning), the scene is set for a love triangle, but one almost totally stripped of sentiment in this apocalyptic world.

Ever the philosophy scholar, McPherson uses his play to explore the issue of man's fundamental morality, suggesting that, in the face of disaster, man (and in this case, the Irish in particular) will be ruthless in pursuit of survival. Rather than imposing these ideas upon his clipped dialogue, he has one of his characters keep a diary: as she writes, we hear her voice in a pre-recorded voiceover. The conceit is not always fluid, but effective in bringing an element of existential questioning to a crowd-pleasing thriller.

The result is a combination of Waiting for Godot and Jagged Edge: claustrophobic, questioning, frightening; and with a twist. Life is bleak, says McPherson; we may as well laugh at it, and delight in our fear, and therein strive to keep the bleakness at bay.

From The Irish Times, October 1st, 2009, by Sara Keating

Conor McPherson's new play The Birds uses Daphne du Maurier's famous short story as inspiration for an original theatrical gothic thriller. Set in an ambiguously anonymous rural landscape, the play is post-apocalyptic in both the religious and the material sense. The birds might represent nature turning in upon itself, but, as the refugees in the decaying farmhouse where the play is set turn upon each other, McPherson wonders not just if the world is ending but if God is dead.

Despite its borrowed origins, The Birds calls to mind McPherson's earlier work - the gothic confessional of The Weir; the metaphysical anguish of Dublin Carol - but never has he been more in control of the heightened naturalistic atmosphere than here. The nature of the relationships between the refugees - the conflict between their collective fight for survival and their individual desires - are given to us only gradually, as the hovering birds descend with the high tide, twice daily, to attack the house. Indeed, no sooner have Sinéad Cusack's haunted, heartbroken novelist Diane and Ciarán Hinds' sensitive, practical Nat appear to have settled into domesticity than the arrival of Denise Gough's vibrant, giddy Julia forces a new dynamic which shifts our expectations entirely.

As director, McPherson keeps us on the edge of our seat too, with piecemeal visual revelations. Even Rae Smith's declining grand set is revealed to us inch by inch with the curtains' slow withdrawal in the opening scene. Indeed, it is only with the gradual illumination which Paul Keogan's lighting design lends, as the scenes progress from morning to noon to evening to night, that the true extent of the house's damp dilapidation - the harbinger of this temporary family's doom - is revealed. Fionnuala Ní Chiosáin original score and Simon Baker's threatening wing-beating sound design contribute enormously to the building atmosphere.

If the structure of the play is essentially filmic (the voice-over device is effective, but definitely unusual in the theatrical setting), the single-set confinement of the theatrical space enhances the characters' claustrophobia and the tension of the tight drama. Indeed, the production itself is so taut, so well-conceived within the playing space, that any further elaboration risks ruining it for the non-initiated viewer.

But let's just say that there is always potential, even within this apparently open room, for surprises. Until November 22nd.

From The Mail on Sunday, October 4, 2009, by Michael Moffatt

Early in the first act of this new Conor McPherson play, a disturbed, hammer-wielding Nat (Ciarán Hinds), tells the uneasy Diane (Sinéad Cusack) that he had been put into a mental hospital by a former girlfriend.

For a few moments, there's a whiff of dramatic tension. You feel that the pressure of being imprisoned in a farmhouse by thousands of marauding birds may spark the kind of emotional explosion that will throw light on the characters, on our very existence and our place in the world.

But the tension is shortlived in this dramatisation of the Daphne du Maurier story (best known from Hitchcock movie adaptation), and it's quickly back to food and surviving the siege. And that seems to happen every time there's a situation loaded with possible dramatic impact. Using an omission from the programme as a plot device is a dubious tactic, and would be justified only if it had a major influence on the development of the work, but although it's combined with some other weak devices, it merely underlines the lack of dramatic tension in the play as a whole. McPherson's dramatisation is similar to the Du Maurier original in the dilemma of the characters, but he has expanded the possibilities for human interaction. Nat, who now lives alone, is accompanied by Diane, also fleeing from the birds, and later by Julia (Denise Gough), which introduces a possible sexual triangle. A subplot enlivens things but it's resolved too fast, without developing the philosophical base of the story.

The voice of Diane, writing a diary, is used as a voice-over to express her unspoken thoughts, and McPherson uses quotes from Ecclesiastes to give a philosophical base to his reflections on life and man's uniqueness in the scale of creation. But that never really works its way through the script and is just used to pose a philosophical question at the end.

The main leads work well together in roles that don't give much scope for characterisation, but McPherson's direction fails to create the kind of claustrophobic atmosphere necessary to bring the doomsday scenario alive. The play would probably have had a more disturbing impact if shortened and played without an interval. As it is, the dramatic contrast between the enemy outside and the enemy within never really catches fire.

From The Guardian, Sunday 11 October 2009, by Lyn Gardner

"I'm a writer; I just turn everything up," declares Diane (Sinéad Cusack), defending what she's written in her diary to teenager Julia, who has sneaked a peek and doesn't like it. Conor McPherson has turned everything down in his version of Daphne du Maurier's short story, also the source of Hitchcock's movie. An ambiguously open tale of nature's revenge on humanity becomes a claustrophobic and bland thriller overlaid with some musings about writing, God and the survival of the fittest. The live birds that flit desultorily across the stage at the end sum up a long evening that is about as menacing as slice of pigeon pie.

Only the name of Du Maurier's central character, Nat (Ciarán Hinds), survives here. He and Diane, both damaged survivors of family break-up, are thrown together when they take refuge in a dilapidated old house that has a resident corpse upstairs. As the birds rise and attack the house, Nat and Diane start to form a bond, but the relationship is broken by the arrival of Julia (Denise Gough), whose presence initially sees them all playing happy families but eventually ruffles feathers and stirs murderous instincts.

McPherson's play is sadly lacking in mystery, texture and tension. Right from the start it seems poised awkwardly between comedy and melodrama, naturalism and something more heightened. Not surprisingly the actors seem unsettled, perching in their roles rather than fully inhabiting them.

Directed by Conor McPherson
Designed by Rae Smith
Lighting designed by Paul Keogan
Sound by Simon Baker

Nat Ciarán Hinds Diane Sinéad Cusack
Julia Denise Gough The neighbour Owen Roe

Company/theatre: Gate Theatre
Run: 2009-09

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