There are times when you can watch a show and understand what the theatre company has done, you can see their thoughts and intentions shimmering on the surface of their work. Now, this might not always be a bad thing – some of the worst theatre experiences are those that leave you befuddled by what you’ve seen with no context. Imaginative yes, coherent less so. The Paper Birds’ new piece Thirsty is a look at our obsession (or perhaps better to call it, liking) of alcohol and its affects. In doing do, the company (Jemma McDonnell, Elle Moreton and Kylie Walsh) has created a piece that seems inherently obvious.
As performers of Thirsty, McDonnell and Walsh attempt to portray what drunkenness is, what the relationships are like between people that are drinking, and also attempt to crack open the bonds that make The Paper Birds a collaborative theatre-making company. Thirsty is a devised piece, using verbatim text taken from drunken phone calls the company received during their devising process from audience members, friends and family. This is relayed, not so much as the first person, but more as an outside voice entering the performance space, voiced by Walsh and McDonnell. They speak of the phone calls, recite words written on the cubicle walls of the set (three identical toilet cubicles complete with moving toilet seats), and mix these with their own tales.
The thing is, this approach to performance delivery seems too exposed for my liking. I can see through the presentation of work and see the raw remains of their devising process. Whilst they state that they had people call them and leave them messages, the performing duo do this with a sense of persona, another tool out of the devising handbook. I’m not trying to knock The Paper Birds for its devising process, nor for its performance, because on the whole Thirsty is an enjoyable piece and the audience laugh and travel on the journey of drunkness with them. For me though, with every scene, and every device used, I can’t help but to think “Yup, that’s another tool for devising right there… yeah, there is another overused technique”. Whether it’s drinking glass after glass of water and repeating gestures, or revealing truths of McDonnell and Walsh’s friendship, I see the technique more than the performance.
Perhaps it is the influence of Kirsty Housley (of Complicite) and Wendy Houstoun (of DV8, Forced Entertainment) who have both collaborated on the project that has infused The Paper Birds with these very distinct performance styles. Either way, Thirsty seems for the seasonsed theatre-goer (and previous theatre maker) more about the various methods of making a performance, than that of the performance itself. This is, I’m sure, something that only I experienced, but it does cloud my thoughts on the production when looking back.
However, writing this more objectively and putting aside these niggling thoughts, Thirsty, as a new piece of work from The Paper Birds, is an enjoyable experience. The blended use of live music with the continuous drinking and storytelling, whilst repetitive at times, does propel the audience and the performance in a certain inevitable direction. As McDonnell and Walsh have water streaming down their dresses and the energy of performance wanes slightly, the emotive value of what they are portraying shines through. As people who drink, it is often ourselves who suffer the most: we use drinking to escape, to bridge the gap between reality and idealism.
In Thirsty, The Paper Birds blur the destinctions between what is true – a reflection upon themselves as performers/friends, and on the creative imagination. The verbatim voices that emerge from the work show the depth of experiences that people go through when drinking. As a whole, Thirsty won’t leave you craving a drink or two, but it might just make you think about some of the nights you’ve experienced, and how far this has gone to release the insurities within yourself.