I don’t get it. Is careful consideration of the politics of representation no longer necessary for productions that present themselves as critiques? In his latest play, Birdland, Simon Stephens offers a critique of rock star culture that does more to glamorize and reinforce the lead character’s womanizing behaviour than it does to dissect it. And I’m surprised to hear so little about this aspect of the production online and in print.
Birdland, inspired by the Patti Smith song, follows the unravelling of a typically narcissistic rock star. The star in question, Paul, is the play's anti-hero, struggling as his international tour winds down and he’s faced with the monotony of ordinary life. He grapples with the impending decline of his celebrity by acting out; off the top of the show, he sleeps with his best friend's girlfriend, Marnie, and threatens to kiss and tell, resulting in her suicide. As Marnie free falls from the hotel roof to her death, I couldn’t help but wonder: are these men all she’s got to live for?
Just prior to her suicide, Marnie produces a wand and blows post-coital bubbles in Paul’s giant bed. In many ways, this image stands in for all but one of the female characters in Birdland. Paul’s women are simultaneously serene and eerily glassy, drifting peripherally around the narrative while revealing nothing of themselves until their plot-serving function has been fulfilled, at which point they simply, or rather horribly, burst.
Paul spends the rest of the play sexually cycling through various bewigged versions of the same two actresses (Charlotte Randle and Yolanda Kettle) before embarking on a short-term marriage to a waitress (Nikki Amuka-Bird). When he later meets a fourteen-year-old girl who hasn’t done much to conceal her age, he beds her too. As the play concludes, we see Paul literally rising out of the oily muck, vowing to live on and thrive after being charged with the sexual assault of this same girl.
From their reactions, many men and some women in the audience were behind Paul throughout the play. And why wouldn't they be? Despite the black-swanning havoc he wreaks on his own life, Paul is effortlessly cool, witty, smart and sleeping his way across Europe. In this respect, Birdland indulges itself by glamorizing and revelling in the lead character's womanizing behaviour. I'm sure Stephens would frame all of this as a comment on fame, fortune, delusion and male desire but he sure makes it look appealing—which would be less problematic if it added up to anything for the female characters beyond their incidental, plot-driving function in the show.
My broader question here is this: how many times does Stephens get to vividly depict the awful things that bad men do to women without making a clear comment before we start questioning the ways in which his plays are reinforcing the behaviour they're supposed to be critiquing?
Fuelled by my discomfort with Birdland, I revisited critical responses to Three Kingdoms (a play by Stephens that focuses on prostitution rings) and couldn’t agree more with Maddy Costa: "Why are women the commodity here and not, for example, drugs or guns? Three Kingdoms offers no explanation, which makes it look dangerously like a play that uses women to tell a story set among men who use women to make themselves rich".
Looking back at the flurry of heated online writing about Three Kingdoms, I came across Andrew Haydon’s post criticizing the use of the term misogyny as a means of slamming "the breaks on any critical discussion" and querying Costa’s reference to the lack of reviews engaging with the production’s problematic representation of women. While I’m not looking to reignite the Three Kingdoms debate, I did find it interesting that some recent tweets lauded critics who were "spot on" in praising Birdland (such as Michael Billington) and ridiculed those who didn’t (Charles Spencer). Doesn’t this create a climate where anyone who criticizes the misogyny in Stephens’s plays is always-already behind the times and just doesn’t ‘get it’?
The obvious response to critiques of Birdland’s depiction of women is to dismiss the reviewer as someone who doesn’t understand Stephens’s plays. But appreciating the genius of Stephens's work and resisting its politics of representation are not mutually exclusive. Regardless of how talented an artist may be, can we sit back and give him or her carte blanche when it comes to representations of problematic gender politics (no matter how knowing), particularly when the representations in question say so little about the gender they’re objectifying? It signals laziness on our part as critics and spectators.
Framing Stephens as the rock star of English playwriting blinds us to the fundamental disconnect between the way he represents women and the critique his representations are purportedly advancing.
The bottom line here is that critics, particularly female reviewers, could be bullied out of speaking up about sexism and misogyny in Stephens’s shows for fear of being ridiculed for not ‘getting’ his genius. Does Stephens’s status as a force in twenty-first century British playwriting overwrite his politics of representation? Would Birdland’s portrayal of women have gone un-critiqued if the play had been written by a lesser-known author?
Despite significant progress, leadership positions are still dominated by men, the pay gap between genders recently widened, and, between 2012 and 2013, a reported 1.2 million women were physically or sexually abused in the UK. Given these facts, what doesn’t follow is why Birdland has been evaluated at such a remove from the contemporary context in which it was produced and circulates. Have we forgotten that Stephens's play is part of a broader cultural landscape where, in more ways than one, women’s wings remain clipped?