Birds and Bees, written by Charlie Josephine and directed by Rob Watt, attempts to examine key social discourses around sex, sexuality and gender by which our teenagers of today find themselves ineluctably entoiled. Whilst it presents the most common schools of thinking — feminism and intersectionality, queer theory, etc. — its message is rather lost through inconsistency of style and character and through misalignment of theory vs execution. This is an enjoyable performance but could be a lot stronger.
I shall start with the acting. On the whole, the actors’ performances were very good, dampened mainly by errors of style and rhetoric in writing, as I shall detail later. However, the biggest issue I have with all of the performers’ acting styles is that they teeter far too often and too irregularly between ‘naturalistic’ and caricaturistic. Whilst all have high and engaging energy, it is channelled inconsistently throughout, with moments of extreme dynamism feeling incredibly unrealistic, garish and, frankly, cheesy. The biggest problem I have with the acting, though, is in timing. Be it comedic or dramatic, timing in this performance is simply excruciating at times, but it is not so simple to say that it is because of the actors themselves; it is clearly, conversely, a combination of directorial and editorial as well as actor-driven errors.
The key issue with timing arises in dialogue, specifically when characters are interrupting one another. There are often large pauses between one actor speaking and another’s interruption, and this needs to be a lot tighter. Moments like when Aarron (Ike Bennett) first interrupts Maisey (Ida Regan), for example, also demonstrate the actors’ inability to think for themselves in terms of the naturalism needed in the text: Regan’s line ‘I’ve had a clean slate for five years until today, until you decided to—’. The inflection Regan places at the end of this line, on the word ‘to’ is to imply that she is giving Bennett his cue to interrupt her. A brief pause follows, and then Bennett decides to chime in — albeit too late. Errors like this are constant throughout but could be easily remedied. Actors, as should have been the case here for Bennett, should not await the end of another’s line to jump in but should be prepared to start their interruption a few words before. Additionally, in moments like these, it should be expected that Regan would take it upon herself not to hint in her intonation that it is another actor’s cue but to make up the rest of the line and to keep talking until the other cottons on and interrupts when they have not already done so, in order to both keep a naturalistic flow and to avoid such awkward tensions. This may strike one as pedantic at first, but these moments must be slick in order to convey the desired naturalism and to prevent audiences from perceiving falterings in the dramatic text and ultimately being turned off by it — especially in the repetition of such errors.
Pursuing the theme of naturalism specifically, I also mentioned that the problem is editorial as well. Take the first main argument between Aarron and Leilah (Narisha Lawson), for example — performed very well by Lawson. Aarron’s lines as he tries to get a word in are limited to three or four, insignificant and not to mention repetitive, words: ‘Wait, hang on—‘, ‘I was trying—‘, ‘Look, I tried—‘, ‘Well, yeah, I know—‘, ‘Well, yeah, I—‘. This becomes too poetic and structured and does not follow the characteristics of real and natural speech. In real life, people talk over each other. Once they are interrupted more than twice and have a propensity to be silenced by those interrupting them, one finds that the speaker becomes silent altogether and understands that their battle is not worth fighting; otherwise, they carry on angrily and talk over the speaker, their volume increasing, their gestures becoming more restricted and forceful — not represented by Bennett’s flailing around the table. More attention should be given to refining these somewhat minor patterns that make up an incredible portion of the text.
Away from the lexical and more towards character psychology, there are also inconsistencies in terms of the specific relationships characters share but also in their political thinking and general behaviour patterns. The most intrusive example of this centres on the character of Billy (EM Williams) and their interactions with Aarron. Clearly, Leilah and Billy know each other, and by the ease with which the characters interact with one another and the fact that Aarron is Leilah’s boyfriend, we can infer that Billy and Aarron must know each other, too. Billy starts by talking about queer sex, and we see that Aarron is made uncomfortable by this, but it is simply a mere discomfort. When Billy states that they identify neither as a girl nor a boy, Aarron’s reaction is violent and intimidating — though, in both the text and Bennett’s performance, such a violent reaction seems to come too late after Billy’s admission — and Aarron proceeds to call Billy a ‘freak’. If someone has such homophobic/transphobic beliefs and feels the confidence to bully the subject of their phobias, it is unlikely that they would stay silent when queer sex — the most blatant of queer topics — should arise. As I wrote above, the characters obviously know each other, and so it is also confusing as to why this would be a revelation for Aarron, especially considering how openly, bluntly and militantly Billy voices their views.
Billy is clearly intimidated by this interaction, backing away, lowering their head, and they later also jump aback off their chair when angering Aarron by informing him that his friend, Jack, is in hospital…yet, they continue to speak about queer topics. As soon as there is a sense of such a lack of safety in an environment, a queer person who is likely to be intimidated in such a manner would most likely not continue to voice their opinions in the fear of being attacked, especially without so much as glancing over to see if the danger persists. However, more importantly, I doubt very much that someone as political as Billy, who has no problem vocalising their views to whomever they meet, and who continues to do so after this intimidation, as I have just written, would back down so easily. These irregularities make for a huge illegibility in character, and the characters thus become fickle, vapid, voiceless and compromised over time.
And this is not an issue specific to Billy’s character. Somehow, Maisey’s ‘reductionist’ and what one might refer to as white feminist or TERF and heteronormative views of sex are all thrown out of the window later… After shaming Cherrelle’s ‘stupidity’ and ‘attention-seeking’ in her sexting, or, in fact, an entire number of girls when she says that all some girls do is ‘just stay here and get pregnant’ and ‘ruin their education’ too busy ‘gossiping’ and prioritising their social life, Maisey performs a huge poem — more on that shortly — talking about how women are shamed regularly for their bodies and, more importantly, their sexual bodies, stating that she herself is ‘[taught to] hate my desires so much, I ignore what I’m needing’… It seems in these examples as though characters are not used as representations of real people with consistent emotions, feelings and beliefs; instead, they are used haphazardly as vapid tools to simply get across the socio-political thinkings of the play.
Two main things happen in this poem and in the preceding stylised scene involving Leilah and Aarron: a huge and overwhelming transformation of performance style, and the introduction of heretofore-unspoken sub-themes of in-/fidelity, masturbation, menstruation…and these seem like a huge afterthought.
Now halfway into the performance, such a radical shift in performance style is unwieldy and ineffective; it starts to feel as though we are watching a different performance altogether. Camp performance and extravagant dance, the introduction of poetry and spoken word, the drastic shift in lighting states and the use of tableaux vivants, all of this seems to come out of nowhere and strip the performance bare of its narrative in its rampage. ‘Breakdowns’, as I shall refer to them — where characters become anxious, angry, uncomfortable or ‘triggered’ and where lighting states and editing style change in accompaniment with scratching/thundering sound effects — become a regular occurrence and start to fill in for narrative and linear action until they replace them altogether later in the play. What was first a narrative-based play focused on the sociopolitical clashes of four opinionated and well-informed characters becomes a stylised and interpretive, mime-based performance. We now have multi-roling, microphones, a bombardment of poetry — and rather awful poetry, at that, in favour of rhyme in lieu of poignancy — and it simply feels too chaotic.
Along with the last-minute additions of these new themes, catalysed in a late scene in the play where the four characters gather together, sat upon the tabletops and recite some overly energetic, out-of-character and even-more-awful poetry, this shift utterly dilutes, nay destroys, any worthwhile message to be taken from this performance. I fail to understand why we spent so much time building up an understanding of these characters and their stories, and their relation to their friend’s sexting — which, really, becomes a completely ignorable feature in the text with no effect on plot development whatsoever — if it was all just to be simply forgotten to this chaos of poetry and repetitive social discourse… Oh, and now we’re breaking the fourth wall as well! All sense of character and plot is completely lost, and it is easy to feel cheated out of money and time. It is not explained, for example, why queerphobic Aarron is now best friends with Billy, going so far as to ask them if his girlfriend, Leilah, is OK before approaching her himself, or why any of them are so close at the end, for that matter. Why is he now all over Billy’s politics, telling them they’re really good at voicing their opinions? I still have no idea what Leilah got so worked up about at the end, resulting in her anxiety attack — and I took it upon myself to watch it twice! What made Maisey confess to setting them all up or feel the need to connive against the teachers in writing the new speech for the next assembly? These are all questions that such a total avoidance of narrative leaves unanswered.
It feels as if this dramatic text was failing to come to some sort of impactful, climactic and thought-provoking resolution and so blindly launched at its audience every single theatrical technique it could think of, to the detriment of the ending it wanted. Either it should have pursued a hyper-stylised performance from the very beginning, or the narrative-based text should have been left to function alone. It takes immense skill to blend the two together, and I am not convinced that such skill is present here, but I would start by recommending all loose ties be drawn together in the narrative, to leave no unanswered questions about character or plot, before stylisation gets involved with the subject matter and themes of the text. It is perfectly acceptable to use characters to present situations and themes that can then be broken down and drawn out by stylisation, but this is not what happens here. It was a terrible decision to then return to the narrative after these stylised scenes, having left out so much information about it, expecting the audience to be distant spectators, then engaged thinkers, then re-distanced again.
Above all, the message we are left with is far too confused and unparticularised to feel impactful. There is an important distinction that this text fails to make, which is that between sex, sexual liberation and sexual education. The three are, indeed, interrelated to some degree, but they are dealt with in this text as though they are in direct relation with one another, as though one inevitably affects the other in crude and inelaborate ways. Some food for thought, for example, would be the distinction between anatomy classes on female genitalia vs lessons on masturbation — a distinction this text fails to make.
All of this being said, however, the performers’ energy is high throughout. Visuals are engaging, and stylised scenes, however irrelevant in terms of the performance’s structure, are well organised, for the most part, when considered alone. The minimalistic and symmetrical set is pleasing to the eye and designed well enough to capture the imagination without distracting from the text, particularly the linear strips of white upon the floor which serve to chart the topography of the classroom and its surrounding architecture. And I must also note the attention to detail in props: a handwritten speech, a working mobile phone, and an actual drawing for Billy to work on are nice touches. However, again, one can see how this level of naturalism is in direct competition with the miming elsewhere and the ‘location changes’ achieved by a reorganisation of the tables, which requires a lot more imagination from the audience’s part. I cannot say that this performance is boring, because it is not. It is a fun watch, but its politics are all over the place, and its structure and style are incredibly ill-conceived.
“An enjoyable performance but fraught with stylistic and structural inconsistencies.”
Photography credit: Helen Murray.