The Conference of the Birds

Mon 15th – Sat 20th August 2011

reviews

sophie ainscough

at 14:40 on 17th Aug 2011

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Presented by Edinburgh’s student society Theatre Paradok, The Conference of the Birds is beautifully bizarre. The production is written by Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carriere, adapted from 12th century Persian Sufi poetry, specifically a poem by Farid Uddi Attar. Sam Gillespie delivers a stunning performance as the Hoopoe, a striking presence on the stage as he raises his wings and sounds the summoning cry. Suddenly the stage is teeming with life, all manner of birds chattering and fluttering in bright, vibrant costume. The masked musicians Dan Abrahams, Roseanna York and Giancario Tammaro blend into the stage set, both flute and string refrain hauntingly appropriate. Talented Darla Eno earns an audible “aww” from the audience in her portrayal of the weak and feeble sparrow. A comic highlight is provided by Jonathan Blaydon, who also doubles as an owl, a hermit who entertains and engages the audience in his continual preoccupation with material things, be it an aubergine or his fondly combed beard.

As the birds prepare for their journey to the Simorgh, the mysterious king of the birds, objections to the expedition are raised and overcome in a sequence of stories which the Hoopoe directs with ease, the interchange smooth and tightly tied to the initial fear of the individual. Why do you always answer me with a story, one of the birds asks, and like the tales the journey of the birds itself has a wider meaning. The birds are challenged spiritually and physically as they travel through the seven valleys, including those of quest, love, understanding and annihilation. The choreography is flawless, the story telling circle breaking up as they move into dance. The flight across the valleys is particularly memorable, the birds cohering tightly as a single flock and impressively imitating the unified motion of a bird in flight. Ultimately the Conference of the Birds proves itself as an impressive performance, dazzling in its use of dance and music and fulfilling expectations of a production which offers something engaging and daringly different.

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Harriet Baker

at 18:25 on 17th Aug 2011

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This production is the most remarkable thing I have seen at the Edinburgh Fringe. It is staggeringly good, and I urge people to go and see it. You will be transported into another world; captivated by faultless performances, intricate costumes, music and movement.

‘The Conference of the Birds’ tells of the Hoopoe, the teacher, gathering all his birds about him for a conference. He tells them of Simorgh, the great King of all birds, whom they must journey to meet. They are dubious and offer complaints and objections, but through parables and stories he leads them to believe in the reality and beauty of Simorgh. Their journey commences, an arduous flight across seven valleys, each involving moral and physical challenges that they must overcome. Birds die, slip away in the night or give up hope, but those that reach the Mountain Qaf upon which Simorgh resides, realize their faith. Their King is not external or separate from them, but within; they transcend themselves to exist in totality. They reach a lake in which their reflections glitter. Adapted from the ancient Persian poem by Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carrière in the 1970s, you will be swept away by the beauty of the language and the lyricism of the piece.

This impressive production, delivered by Theatre Paradok, is faultless. The music, delivered by a flautist, double bassist, guitarist and impeccable percussionist, is otherworldly. The costumes are perfect. The cast are decked in feathers and chiffon; easily recognizable are the owl, the falcon, the dove and the peacock, whilst a host of clucking whittling twitching creatures seize the stage. The level of acting is superb; Dylan Read as the falcon and the hermit in the desert was simply wonderful to watch, whilst Thomas Louis as the peacock and Fiona Anderson as the exotic bird delivered faultless performances. The level to which the cast remained in character was excellent, constantly cocking their heads and uttering throttled twitterings from their throats to create the babble of birdsong. The two most remarkable performances belong to Darla Eno who perfected the fragility and agility of the sparrow, and Sam Gillespie as the Hoopoe. He opened the show with a gutteral warbling bird-cry and the rest of his performance was just as bizarre and captivating. I have seen shows where the cast deliver, and yet do not sparkle. This was entirely different. A set of eyes glittered constantly on stage, and the movements were relentless until sweat broke out and yet the entire audience was mesmerized.

The show perfectly unites theatre, music, verse and performance art. The sense of motion throughout the show was excellent. When demonstrating flight, the cast assembled centre-stage and moved in perfect unison, bodies undulating while the instruments created the sounds of buffeting wind. The cast held hands and moved as one body, before breaking away and scattering in exquisite barefoot movements. The use of bodies and limbs saw the creation of emblematic motifs; unity, torment and death, each representing the trials of the valleys over which they journeyed. Bodies created shapes and instantly whole concepts: a stunning achievement.

Every aspect of this production contributes to the sense of motion and spiritual journey. It is a way of darkness and temptations, and yet the Hoopoe assurues that only though such trials will the birds reach their goal. In darkness, a silk sheet is raised at the back of the stage, and to the Hoopoe’s commentary, lights behind show the flights of moths into flame, swallowed entire. Such brief and beautiful moments only build on what is a mesmerizing whole. As I said, I urge you to see this show. As the final words of the Hoopoe stated, “The way is open. But there is neither traveler nor guide.” You will be swallowed whole and taken on a journey. My sincere congratulations to the cast and production team for ‘The Conference of the Birds.’

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