Glasgow-based theatre company Birds of Paradise is currently touring a new production that promises ‘an ironic and humorous journey entering the world of brain injury, consciousness, memory and creativity’. Paul F Cockburn asks: did it work?
The artistic imperative is possibly the most distinctive aspect of what makes us human, but centuries of seeking the source of our innate need to express how we experience the world, remains unclear; and surely no more so than in the exceedingly rare Sudden Artistic Output Syndrome—so exceptional an occurrence, it hasn’t even got its own Wikipedia article yet.
Former Birds of Paradise writer-in-residence Danny Start’s play, In An Alien Landscape, is directly inspired by his late friend Tommy McHugh: as Start explains in the programme, “a double brain aneurysm, a ten-hour operation and Tommy was transformed from a rough and tough builder (and some time drug dealer and fighter) into… an artist with an unstoppable compulsion to create, to paint, to sculpt, to commit words to paper… a man in touch with his creativity and emotions.”
Such an astounding transformation is ripe material for art itself, but Start’s script seems reluctant to fully address the metamorphosis which Tommy’s surrogate, Albie Quinn, undergoes. Instead, we are offered a deliberately fractured retelling of Albie’s back-story, an ultimately dissatisfying collage of broken memories and splintered personifications of dead father, lost wife and his own conscience. Too late, it feels, we see the new man in some sense put himself together, ready to face the bizarre new world of “interesting people” at some art world soirée.
The pounding heart of this production is a dynamic performance by Paul Cunningham, whose wiry, physical intensity and honesty as Albie warms you to the man, despite his self-declared failings. Startlingly, it’s also the complete opposite of his tremendous stillness during Birds of Paradise’s previous production, The Man Who Lived Twice, in which he played the paralysed playwright, Edward Sheldon.
On this occasion, Cunningham is balanced by David Toole as both the pugnacious personification of Albie’s ‘hard man’ father and his own puckish conscience, Klang. While Toole is still best known for his physicality - he was a member of multi-ability dance company CandoCo for six years, and performed as part of the London 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony - it’s great to see him mature as an actor of considerable subtlety. Alas, drawing the short straw is Morag Stark; as Albie’s wife Suze and fellow SAOS survivor Dr Jill, she at times feels like a third wheel, little more than a voice off-stage, and not really given anything to do.
Special mention must be made of Kenny Miller’s all-white box set, which initially seems just a backdrop for video projections (by Neil Bettles and Jonnie Riordan of ThickSkin Theatre) and the company’s inclusive surtitles. However, it frames the action beautifully and reminds you enough of the antiseptic atmosphere of the hospital ward and the clinical minimalism of an art gallery, the worlds the new Albie was born into and now has to live in. Overall, however, while director Julie Ellen has certainly created a tight production, it is neither as innovative nor as insightful as it clearly wants to be.
In An Alien Landscape tours Scotland until 26 February, going to Glasgow, Cumbernauld, Mull, Lochan and Paisley. For details click here to go to DAOs events listings pages