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Lost & found

Original Source: IRISH TIMES: MONDAY 14 JUNE 2010
The Irish Times - Monday, June 14, 2010  

Husband and wife actors Catherine Cusack and Alex Palmer in The Early Bird. The Project production takes place in a perspex box, turning the audience into clinical observers of a couple's private nightmare

The Early Bird’ is a raw, claustrophobic play about parents’ worst fears, written by Leo Butler while his wife was expecting their child. He talks to PETER CRAWLEY about fear, paranoia and his knack for capturing the times in his work

A CHILD has gone missing. And, with her unexplained disappearance, all logic and structure seems to have disappeared from the world too. As her parents share their story – or perhaps prepare their answers – the laws of chronology and consistency loosen. They slip between time frames, become different characters. They complete or contest one another’s sentences. They console and abuse each other. Only one thing is for certain: they are trapped together in the same nightmare.

There are few explanations in The Early Bird , a teasingly abstract play about a horrifyingly real fear, written in 2006. But, with Natural Shocks’ new production, now reaching Project Arts Centre following a well-received London run last year, there are at least two people clearly responsible for its puzzle and its prison. One is Leo Butler, the Sheffield-born, London-based writer of the tense stychomythia of the characters’ elliptical dialogue. The other is Donnacadh O’Briain, the Dublin-born, London-based director of Natural Shocks theatre company, whose new production of Butler’s play here confines the couple to a Perspex box. Designed by takis (sic), the set is striking, fascinating and unnerving: a symbol of Beckettian restriction but with the feel of clinical observation, around which we sit, watch and judge.

“I think there are similar themes, and a similar challenge to the audience, within every play that I write,” Leo Butler says from London’s Royal Court, the theatre where he first worked as an usher, subsequently had his first play produced and where he now tutors writers’ groups. “I guess with every play I’m always trying to explore some of the most primitive or darker sides of people’s personalities or people in extreme situations . . . I think we can only really learn about ourselves by looking at the parts of ourselves that are uncomfortable to look at.”

For such a gentle and considered speaker, his creative fears and fantasies can cut very close to the bone. Butler wrote his meditation on child loss, guilt and acrimony when his wife was six months pregnant with their child.

Director Donnacadh O’Briain was similarly drawn to the heightened sensitivity of its subject. “I don’t really know why this is,” he says, “but I seem to be compelled towards plays about intimate relationships at absolute crisis points.” He has certainly pushed couples therapy to its limits with The Early Bird by casting Catherine Cusack (daughter of Cyril) and Alex Palmer, who are actually husband and wife. Whether this has afforded the performers an emotional shorthand or a bond of trust, that knowledge adds another voyeuristic layer to the audience’s experience. A couple on view, the characters prompt feelings more complicated than simple empathy or suspicion. As Cusack and Palmer address implied listeners – who variously seem to be friends, interrogators, themselves or their child – their fears and fantasies can jab a finger in any exposed nerves. As their blame ranges from junk food and trash TV to flaring tempers and marital infidelity, moments of understandable parental frustration are magnified into something sinister; holiday fantasies can look like a wish for childlessness.

Butler admits that although he was digging into his own anxiety about impending fatherhood in writing the play, it is intended to be something much more symbolic. Too much reality can get in the way of its meaning.

“Hopefully the disappearance of the child serves as a metaphor for a wider grief,” Butler says. “More than anything, it’s that kind of loss which is without logic or reason, where life is propelled into chaos and you cannot rationally bring yourself out of it. In a lot of modern drama there’s a tendency to give cause and effect to everything. But life isn’t like that. Things happen that you don’t expect and you can’t understand, whether it’s a tsunami or volcanic ash, whether somebody gets struck by lightning or a child vanishes. How do you deal with that, when you face chaos and the rational mind can’t solve that puzzle?”

Butler is well aware, though, that a play is not isolated from a social context; and that with a missing child narrative it is hard to separate a metaphor from a media story. “Each audience member will take away something different,” he says. “Certainly, people will make connections with Madeleine McCann or James Bulger and others may question the characters and wonder are they somehow complicit in the disappearance.”

Butler has been outpaced by current events before. His play Redundant, written early in 2001, had a throwaway line about the then little-known terrorist Osama bin Laden, whom one character implored to bomb the country. When the play opened in the Royal Court on 22 September, 2001, it drew gasps.

“It was a play that was trying to explore issues about social poverty: the poverty of the imagination, spiritual poverty – then suddenly it became the play that mentioned bin Laden,” Butler recalls, and it made him aware of the benefits and pitfalls of accidental prophecies. His credit crunch drama, Face in the Crowd, opened just before the collapse of Northern Rock, and when he wrote a line in Lucky Dog in which a character idly muses that the Queen will “be dead come summer”, he spent months coming up to production worrying that she might. There’s a certain irony in a writer who depicts a world without causation or reason whose work is so shaped by patterns and coincidence.

The success of O’Briain’s production is also to trace a path through that disorder, where the precision of Paul Keogan’s lights and the deft disquiet of Patrick Stewart’s sound design help locate meaning in the maelstrom. It brings no forced certainties to the story, a narrative so fractured and fluid with fear that the characters’ thoughts of the Marx Brothers are as vivid as those of vicious schoolchildren. But the confidence of its performance allows a multitude of readings. When Cusack first delivers the line, “So it’s my fault?”, she actually sounds hopeful for any answer that would bring closure. Her final dizzying monologue, stunningly delivered, weaves a paranoid tapestry from every previous thought. Whether you leave unsettled or unsatisfied, the production leaves a deep impression, where narrative itself becomes like that see-through box: a shape to contain the chaos.

The Early Bird continues in Project Cube until June 26


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