Alfred Hitchcock is widely celebrated as the master of suspense and the performers of Jammy Voo have created a stunning interpretative homage to one of the most iconic horror films of the British director. At Jacksons Lane.
Alfred Hitchcock is widely celebrated as the master of suspense, and the performers of Jammy Voo have created a stunning interpretative homage to one of the most iconic horror films of the British director.
I have to admit, to my shame, that my memories of watching Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds are rather hazy, but it’s not essential to know all the intricacies of the film’s plot to appreciate this piece of physical theatre. What you need to know is that there is a quiet, small California town, and suddenly there are birds appearing from nowhere and they attack people seemingly at random. Oh, and maybe that the central character is a woman who gets involved with a man and struggles with his overbearing mother. Hitchcock’s horror is almost always psychological and Jammy Voo capitalises on that.
Birdhouse is, if you will, a kind of postmodern sequel, that uses the story universe and minor characters to paint an absurd picture of the life after the attacks portrayed in the film. In Jammy Voo’s narrative the survivors of the horror seem to have formed a strange, symbiotic relationship with the attacking birds. The four women that take centre stage wear feathered head-dresses and talk about their personal, rather domestic horrors – be it about supporting a family or cleverly illustrating issues about female fulfilment through giving birth with the help of eggs. It might sound a bit pretentious and abstract, but the concept is put into action very demonstratively, and so the birds in this piece serve as an intriguing metaphor for oppression. It’s not just a one-sided preachy piece about all that though; in a fascinating moment in which a woman gets seduced by bird puppet, the room for all kinds of ambivalent readings is opened up.
It has to be said that Jammy Voo’s is a very intellectual approach that might leave some people cold. There are moments of deliberate ennui, which (in a Hitchcockian manner) skilfully coax the viewer into the next visual or acoustic climax. Audiences aware of psychoanalyst theories might recognise nods to the cheeky and convoluted pop culture analysis of academia’s enfant terrible Slavoj Zîzek, but even if you’re not in the slightest interested in psychoanalyst musings about female oppression and womanhood, you will find a lot to enjoy in this piece.
The most striking quality of this piece is definitely its stylistic vigour and its nearly cinematic scope. Visually sophisticated and nuanced, the performers include convincing bird puppets and a model of a house to bring up traumata connected to issues of motherhood or society judging women by their ability to bear children. Masterfully treading the fine line between clownery and expressive physical theatre movements, the created characters, although definitely distinguishable, remain deliberately abstract. They don’t have names or a distinct back-story, and they don’t talk a lot anyway – or at least not to each other. In a somewhat alienating way, the company manage to create little moments of truth without relying heavily on an overarching story.
The live music written and performed by Greg Hall is nothing short of revelatory. The arrangements are tender and soothing harmonies, which achieve so much more than merely illustrating the performance; it becomes part of the seductive suspense. The show, incidentally, had one of the best sound performances I have heard on stage in a long time. It was crisp and clear and let the music and actor’s voices seem like a perfectly mixed film soundtrack. That is especially remarkable, seeing as touring shows like this are in a constant provisory state of having to adapt to local premises.
After seeing this intelligent reworking of the source material I will definitely watch The Birds again. If, like me, you feel the need to brush up on your knowledge on Britain’s cult filmmaker, the BFI Southbank runs an extensive retrospective of Hitchcock’s work until October. But more than that, I cannot wait to see what Jammy Voo’s next “eggsperiment” is going to be. With their distinct visual concept, this company is definitely one to look out for.