Over time, hoarders can crowd their house so full of stuff that it becomes a risk to their health. Birdcage Thursdays by Sandra Fiona Long considers the consequences of an inability to distinguish between valuables to keep and junk to toss. More acutely, it shows how this deficiency in a writing process can mortally wound a production.
Hélène (Genevieve Picot) lives with her cockatiel Amanda (Sophia Constantine) in a retirement village. Her collection of cardboard boxes, including broken cups, newspapers, and her kids’ school books, has almost filled her unit. The place is now so cluttered that the village council are forced to intervene for Helénè’s safety.
The obligation to help mum thin down the load enough to pass an upcoming inspection falls to daughter Catherine (also Constantine). It’s not going to be easy, Catherine already has a busy work and family schedule.
Picot is capable as a woman determined to not give up her stuff in a role that lacks depth. Initially, she seemed to pose a mystery to us. When she talked about the troublemakers at a bowls club, followed by a lawn bowling action, was she self-soothing? Was she somewhat unbalanced, or just eccentric?
Unfortunately, the piece didn’t sustain my interest in this for very long. The script is an unsatisfyingly shallow treatment of the path that leads to hoarding. Helénè made vague, unexplained statements about having had bad things happen in her life.
She seemed somewhat simple, rather than being someone we could relate to who just happens to have a particular psychological need for hoarding. In this, the work doesn’t attempt to challenge whatever stereotypes we may associate with the condition, or mental illness generally.
There’s also some questionable choices in the production. Helénè’s frequent detours into actions, including performing dance moves, weren’t constructive. Having Long announce them as they happened via a microphone was pointless. Caitlin Dullard’s direction ensured that Constantine made snappy transitions from Amanda to her slightly-written Catherine, but she too was blighted with some unedifying, gimmicky movement sequences.
The play also lacks development of ideas and character. A few times Catherine emphasised the importance of the upcoming inspection, which Helénè greeted with consistent indifference. This repetition made the work quite dull. I wondered if Catherine too had mental issues for not having the sense to change tack with her mother. Surely there must be more crisp ways of communicating the reluctance, or maybe inability, of a hoarder to change their ways?
While you can appreciate Amanda acting as a metaphor for a hoarder, this was so underdeveloped that it would hardly matter if she was omitted. After maybe 15 minutes of trudging along in Birdcage Thursdays, I thought about Shakespeare’s body of work. His plays endure due to their well-realised characters and meaty stories.
That regularly seems just too hard nowadays, and what we get instead is an obsession with novelty. The theatre world should be wary of this false god. As Jill Sykes wrote incisively in The Age recently:
“Not only responding to the four Liveworks pieces I have seen but to a growing sense of concern over hybrid developments in performance, I fear that presenters and audiences are succumbing to spin, accepting anything that is put in front of them. We must be more discriminating or boredom will overtake us and the performing arts will disappear for lack of interest.”
What’s more, we reviewers need to be courageous enough to follow Sykes’ example and be more discriminating. Only through this can we help good work find the audiences it deserves, rather than drowning amongst the mediocre. Birdcage Thursdays seems much more interested in decorative flourishes than bringing us insight into the lives of hoarders.
The performance was followed by the briefest and most anaemic applause from an almost full house. This suggests that the audience found it the kind of uninteresting work that Sykes observed in Sydney. Surely, and regrettably, your time will be better spent on something that has had a more rigorous period of development. That these can be hard to find suggests that the Melbourne theatre scene is now desperately in need of outside eyes.
fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Performance: Sunday 5 November 2017 – 5.00pm
Season continues to 12 November 2017
Information and Bookings: www.fortyfivedownstairs.com
Image: Genevieve Picot and Sophia Constantine in Birdcage Thursdays – photo by Peter Casamento
Review: Jason Whyte