Set to open next month at the Brunswick Mechanics Institute, Stupid Fucking Bird is an unashamedly irreverent and very funny remix of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. Touted as Chekhov for the 21st century, Aaron Posner’s homage (with smatterings of autobiography) has won both praise and awards and, for director Peter Blackburn, it is a stunning achievement in adaptation.
“That’s the first and most vital thing, I think,” says Blackburn in reference to what Chekhovians should expect from Posner’s work. “Aaron Posner has somewhat miraculously made a play that stands alone in contemporary relevance, but also offers an insight and perspective on The Seagull by re-imagining it for the 21st century. The characters and plot will be unmistakable to Chekhov’s fans, but all is rendered fully in the here and now – not a parlour piece dressed up to meet modern sensibilities. Conrad (our stand in for the original Konstantin) is still concerned with new forms of theatre, but his aesthetic and philosophical debate is placed firmly in current dilemmas and challenges for the theatre, rather than Chekhov’s own dissatisfaction with melodrama, for example. Emma (the modern iteration of Arkadina) is still a famous actress, but rather than a grande dame of Eastern European theatre, she is more recognisable as a face of our theatre, television and film. It’s very satisfying to see characters we know and love (or love to hate) stand so fully-realised in a world we are more familiar with. It will give me great joy to see new audiences discover Chekhov, too.”
The play is produced by the experienced collective at Lightning Jar Theatre ( Hannah Greenwood, Dylan Watson and Tilly Legge) and its reality became a simple merge of talented minds.
“The team at Lightning Jar and I had been scouting for a project to collaborate on for over a year,” says Blackburn. “I was in LA directing a show there, and they sent me the script. I’m pretty mono-maniacal when I’m on a show, but for a brief window – and a few rabid trans-Pacific phone calls – I was transported to the world of Stupid Fucking Bird. We had an instant recognition that this was the show we had to make; this the story we needed to tell. It speaks to me personally and professionally for entirely the same reasons, I think. It articulates so much about the theatre and arts practice that I want to say as a practitioner, and so much about the world I want to say as a human being. It’s entirely theatrical and hardly ever pretentious: except when it’s hilariously so. Posner adapts Chekhov’s first undisputed masterpiece intelligently and with great compassion. It’s irreverent in its audacity, and in its unflinching critique of certain attitudes and behaviours that attend the theatre. But it treats with utter sincerity and searing insight the lives of the people that populate it. It’s a rare bird indeed.”
Chekhov’s themes cam be said to be: untimely and tragic deaths; disease; disillusionment, sadness and yearning to do with frustrated expectations of ambitions or dreams; and the breakdown of family or societal establishments.
Director Blackburn explains that the ‘pillars of Russian literature’ remain sacrosanct in Posner’s work:
“Love and death reign supreme in Chekhov, so audience can certainly expect those! It wouldn’t have his DNA without them. But I think the most compelling theme retained and transformed is about the place of art, and the journey of the artist, in a society. It’s surprising how many of The Seagull’s concerns about writers and theatre makers still ring true. The self-criticism, the competitiveness, the high ego and low self-esteem that attend artists like shadows, and the determination if not lunacy it takes to persist at all in such an inconstant profession. The hunger of the novice and the ennui of the star. Most of all, the strange obsession so many artists have with perfection and their own dissatisfaction with their work. A paradoxical need for approval and inability to accept it when it arrives. It makes a brilliant study and great drama. I think it’s partly why The Seagull has been such an enduring story.”
Blackburn has a long distinguished career as a director, dramaturge and teacher. He held the position of Programs Coordinator for 16th Street Actors Studio and was honoured with an LA Scene Award for his recent staging of Brendan Cowells’ Ruben Guthrie. Blackburn seems an eclectic taste when it comes to the style of plays that interest him, describing himself as being ‘quite unfaithful’ to his tastes.
“I was drawn for many years to the darkest of dark dramas, spending far too much than is perhaps advisable with killers and illnesses, death and nihilism,” he admits. “Perhaps producers sought me out for those shows because I simply have a capacity to dwell in the dark with others and guide them through? Whatever the case, I’ve had much more opportunity to work in comedy recently and have an equal love affair with its rhythm and absurdity and general silliness, so who knows? I’m theatrically polygamous. A glutton even. Stupid Fucking Bird certainly uses the best of each of those duties. It’s very funny, but doesn’t pull punches when plumbing the deeper wells of human experience either.”
Stupid Fucking Bird sees an aspiring young director rampage against the art created by his mother’s generation; a young nubile actress wrestle with an ageing Hollywood star for the affections of a renowned novelist. And everyone discovering just how disappointing love, art and growing up can be. Posner’s great script is profound, dark and funny – there’s misery but there’s also hope and, that folks, is life.
Blackburn only feels really comfortable selling things when he believes in them (one of the many reasons he’s not in advertising!) and so audiences should rest assured that this is one worth watching. “I believe in this show, and though I am unabashedly biased, I can say with utter conviction that it’s at least the best read I’ve had of any play,” she states. “Whether we’ve done well by the material will be up to you, dear audience, and its relative success will be (as these things tend to be) in the eye of the beholder. But you’ll get to knock two ‘to-dos’ off the cultural calendar in one sitting: see a classic AND see a contemporary piece of theatre in one fell swoop. You’ll enjoy paradoxes and ironies. There’ll be a smoking gun, occasional nudity and some bad language. Who doesn’t want that in a show?”
February 8 – 26