Everyone was a bird

This is a guest post from 17 year-old writer and novice theatre critic Phoebe Mitchell (who also just happens to be my daughter).

 

I recently went to see ‘Furious Folly’, a dramatic piece influenced by the Dadaist movement of the early 20th century. It was performed outdoors, in the cooling twilight as day turned to night – an evening of unexpected horror, discomfort, and uncertainty. I was utterly absorbed.

On arrival we were ushered through gates for a short walk amongst the Oxford spires. The walk was dreamy and otherworldly.

The tranquil setting was soon forgotten.

As we entered the setting of the drama – a sports field – each member of the audience was handed a green or brown toy soldier by a figure clad in dark overalls, their face obscured by a hood. Each soldier had been mangled and maimed, leaving each figure twisted, incomplete, contorted.

People given green soldiers were directed to the left; those given brown to the right. Our party was divided and a sense of foreboding took root in us all, an inexplicable apprehension. 

Loudspeakers spewed jazz music with crackles, warnings without conviction, words without soul or meaning. The audience waited, hushed and silent, as if afraid to speak – afraid to draw attention to themselves.

The figures in dark overalls lined the barriers, reticent and mute, speaking brusquely only when addressed. After some time they released the rope and the audience were guided into what had initially seemed to be the scene for the drama. 

The audience had become the participants: we were no longer safe, but vulnerable and exposed. The fourth wall of drama was destroyed and our ability simply to observe the action was eliminated, stripped from us. We were facing those with the brown toy soldiers; people who, five minutes ago, had been friends, family, neighbours now became other.

Between us was a strip of land with four watchtowers at the corners. A woman clothed in grimy white endlessly circled a tree, whispering, “never again, never again, never again”. She was broken; her back strained forwards; her face was grey and anonymous. A man with a gun marched up and down, arbitrarily taking aim at people on both sides.

The sound of a trumpet was interrupted by the jarring crack of gunshot. The fence separating us from the enemy opened and we streamed in to meet in the centre of no man’s land. 

The unspoken hostility that had permeated the sports pitch was gone – its existence and subsequent dissipation were both unexpected.

As we stood there, gunshots fired incessantly; fireworks shot off – no longer a symbol of celebration but of war. Actors mounted the four watchtowers and screamed. Their howls assaulted me. Their words were isolated, disjointed, spoken without the comfort of grammar and sentences. 

Their cries hollowed me out.

All the while, mechanical birds whirred and sang in cages which were hanging in the trees. Their voices, at first comforting, became hideous, shrill.

The performance left me changed. Through the muddle of broken sound and meaning, the actors were able to convey the sheer and utter horror of war. The production captured the absurdity of conflict and battle, and related to the audience the beauty, permanence and crucial importance of remembering our common humanity. 

As Sassoon wrote, we are all birds, the song we sing is wordless, and the singing will never be done.

Forgetting our connection to each other can come at a terrible cost.

 

Everyone Sang – Siegfried Sassoon

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;

And I was filled with such delight

As prisoned birds must find in freedom,

Winging wildly across the white

Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.

 

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;

And beauty came like the setting sun:

My heart was shaken with tears; and horror

Drifted away… O, but Everyone

Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

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