‘The Cagebirds’, David Campton’s allegorical play that first graced the stage seventy years ago, has found a promising new interpretation in the Theatre Group’s production, under the direction of Harry Daisley, Alicia Edwards-Farrer, Ela Fisher and Jeremy Allaire. In a true experiment of physical theatre, the cast and production team employ two seemingly contradictory elements – freedom of movement and the discussion of entrapment – to create a profound commentary on the complexities of modern-day oppression.
Reminiscent of Plato’s ‘Allegory of the Cave’, the play seeks to confront the audience and encourage them to step outside of what they know. The production did just that, immersing the audience throughout and captivating our attention the moment the doors swung open. The cast’s bodies glided and contorted around The Pyramid Theatre’s rectangular stage, luring us inside as we apprehensively took our seats.
An immediate undercurrent of anxiety was established as the play began, with sirens, chiming bells and news reports echoing through the speakers informing the audience of an undisclosed disaster that has displaced the six cagebirds. In the search for safety, the six birds’ troubled expressions were illuminated by hand-held lights as they were promised security – “This is your home now” – by the master (Angus Bell). Delving into the persona of a controlling yet equally charismatic leader, Bell’s deliverance of speech had an eery choral quality that enchants the six birds into synchronised movement and manipulates them into believing that “Good prospects come to those who find solace in four walls”.
Perhaps the first clue of the play’s allegorical nature was the random spurts of frantic opinions from each cagebird. Each hyperfixation defines and conveys their unique characters as the play progresses. Rosina Nelson excels as the hypochondriac Sawyer who is burdened by her constant fear of her sore kneecap developing into something far worse, while Quinn (Amelia Sissons) provides some much-needed comic relief by being curiously specific about the right way to cook certain meals. Not only does each character’s unique obsession chronicle their mounting unease, but they also offer a broader comment on the absurd neurosis stemming from menial preoccupations that seem to dominate our current cultural climate.
The creative liberties taken by the costume department imply that these obsessions have become a universal issue, dressing the six birds uniformly in black overalls. A selection of garments hung from the lighting rig above the stage, representing the characters’ past freedom and self-expression, and serving as a reminder of their entrapment. The choice to host gender-blind casting seems to further this proposed motif of universality, whilst the original script is written solely about women, the inclusion of all genders shows how this problem is experienced by all, irrespective of situation.
Throughout the play’s progression, we remain unsure of how long the birds have been entrapped in this metaphorical cage. Some birds appear more comfortable in their entrapment than others, the beauty-obsessed Constance (Poppy Harris) clings to her mirror, nesting into her surroundings in any way she can manage. It is only when the wild one (Joe Cox) enters the cage and desperately attempts to free the birds from their captivity that we come to understand just how indoctrinated they are. The wild one endeavours to remind his family of their old personalities and shared memories – his monologue is a desperate cry for dialogue which is ultimately met by silence.
A fleeting glimmer of hope for the birds emerges when Grace (Charlotte Pine), previously characterised by a reluctance to offer her opinion, finally crumbles, and for a moment, we almost believe that the wild one has broken through to her. In a poignant performance, Pine’s palpable conflict of feelings is reflected in her tear-filled eyes, beautifully conveying the struggle of going against the grain. As the wild one’s hope deteriorates, so does the audience’s; it becomes startlingly clear that the cage has become their home, “This is their prison”. Freeing themselves from their oppression is far more terrifying than remaining entrapped within it.
Words: Annelise Maynard, she/her
Images: Annelise Maynard, she/her and Ananya Kulshreshtha, she/her