Erin Shields’ play at Tarragon gets Greek. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
This is what we said about If We Were Birds back in 2008 after we saw it at SummerWorks:
…Erin Shields’s If We Were Birds is an absolute knock-out. A modern adaptation of Ovid’s “Tereus, Procne and Philomela,” Birds re-imagines the grisly metamorphoses through the context of twentieth-century wars and conflicts that have used rape as a weapon. Philomela is surrounded by a Chorus of slave women who each represent a different historical conflict: Rwanda, Bangladesh, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nanking, and Berlin. Shields’s prose is as lush and gorgeous as the set design, which is as good as anything you could hope to see at SummerWorks. Alan Dilworth’s direction is focused and deft, and the cast is very, very good. David Fox steals a few scenes as Pandion, but the bulk of the play rests on the shoulders of Tara Rosling, who is phenomenal as Philomela. Let’s hope this one gets picked up by one of the theatres in town. It deserves it.
Oh, it’s so nice when we’re right!
If We Were Birds opened two weeks ago at Tarragon in a new, full-length production, and it’s as good as we remember. Shields’ script brilliantly mimics, and then deconstructs, the archetypal Greek tragedy play. Here, the obligatory brutal violence isn’t plot device or pyrotechnics; it’s part of a powerful, relevant message about the less-than-glorious realities of war. And a longer-than-festival-length running time gives the story and the characters a bit more room to breathe. The Chorus—an idea that didn’t 100% gel at SummerWorks—now works beautifully as an organic part of the show. We get more of David Fox’s wonderful turn as Pandion, including a terrific scene exploring his culpability in the grisly action of the play. The additional scenes also shift the focus away from Philomela (still the exceptional Tara Rosling), who has an understandably difficult time contributing to the action after her tongue has been cut out. This version of If We Were Birds feels more like an ensemble piece, and Philippa Domville’s Procne has become an equally important part of the equation.
If you don’t know the story, it’s worth being warned: this is disturbing stuff. Shakespeare lifted all the goriest bits of Titus Andronicus from Ovid’s tale, and it can be a bit icky to see them acted out. If you can stomach it, you’re in for a thrilling night of theatre. Just maybe eat beforehand, cause we’re not sure you’ll be in the mood after.
If We Were Birds runs until May 23.