Home Theatre; Thursday 6th April 2017
Early on the morning of Wednesday October 22nd 2014, photographer and human rights activist José Palazón captured a powerful and shocking image in his home town of Melilla – a tiny Spanish exclave on Morocco’s northern coastline.
Taken from a distant hillside, Palazón’s photograph captures an ugly interface between two colliding worlds that really should not be as far apart as they are: in the foreground two ladies casually play golf on a landscaped and well-cared-for golf course; in the background a group of migrants attempt to scale a high, wired fence as a policeman intercepts them with a ladder.
The picture makes for uncomfortable viewing. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Who or what is to blame for this situation? Does anyone have a solution?
Spanish theatre company Agrupación Señor Serrano present their take on Palazón’s photograph through their brilliant and innovative multimedia performance, Birdie. Delivered as part of the Viva Spanish and Latin American festival at Manchester’s Home Theatre, Birdie is an unusual, intense and thoroughly entertaining hour of performance art.
A connection was immediately made between the golfing term “birdie” and Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1963 thriller “The Birds”. It soon made sense what connected the film to Palazón’s photograph. Short edits of an interview with Hitchcock himself appear on screen during the performance – he masterfully points out that the true horror of his film lies in the audience’s fear of what the birds might do, rather than any detail of the harm that they actually inflict. Maybe the same is true for audiences of Palazón’s photograph?
More clips of Hitchcock’s classic appeared throughout the performance: loops of Tippi Hedren being menaced in the school playground; drunken prophecies of the end of the world; and that infuriatingly catchy school playground song. The on-screen visuals were accompanied by a lively and jovial soundtrack, a relatively jolly mixture of disco and jazz which made for a good contrast with the dark themes of the night.
The bulk of the show was a fascinating and highly detailed analysis of Palazón’s photograph. Almost every part of it was examined: the species of grass / tree on the golf course; the shoes worn by the golfers; the mobile phone being used by the border patrol guards; and the distinctive red hooded top worn by one of the migrants. The audience got to know the name of one of the golfers, we even saw her Facebook profile, we also met the policeman on his ladder and heard his take on things. But we learnt nothing about the migrants or what became of them.
On the floor of the stage was an incredibly long and intricate arrangement of 2000 miniature model animals, almost looking like a line of dominos about to be toppled. It eventually became clear that the arrangement of these animals depicted a migration, like the migrating birds in Hitchcocks’s film, or like the people in Palazón’s photograph. The performers presented their on-stage model of migration by following the line slowly with a close-up camera shot, revealing details that the human eye couldn’t see.
The end of the show didn’t quite go to plan: the performers started packing up their equipment as the end narrative played on screen, including sweeping up all 2000 model animals. With the jumbled mess cleared, a huge mobile fan (as in, really big) was wheeled onto the stage and turned to face the audience, just as the lights were dimming. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one on the front row who looked at it nervously thinking “I’m a bit too close if they really do turn that thing on”. But it failed to turn on when the switch was flicked, so instead the performers stepped forward to take their much-deserved applause.
My instant reaction was that of anger: that an otherwise superb and flawless improvisational performance had been tarnished by a silly technical failure, it was clearly upsetting and embarrassing for the performers.
But then they shouldn’t be upset: this is a fantastic show, to take a single photograph and turn it into an hour-long performance that induces anxiety and intrigue in the same way as a Hitchcock film is an impressive achievement. And as the man himself would insist: the terror of that giant fan being turned on was probably more damaging than actually having my hairstyle ruined 🙂