The Birds is my third favourite Alfred Hitchcock film. It’s a very sensory experience, requiring, for its climactic moments, a whole lot of birds all up in your face. A stage production would not be able to throw thousands of birds at us—logistically, legally—right? Would imagined birds have enough impact? Was I in for a family and romantic melodrama with artsy sound and lighting effects?
Instead of trying to recreate the film, Bygone Theatre’s production of The Birds, presented at Hart House Theatre, is an entirely new thing. It appropriates many thematic and aesthetic elements; offering a suspenseful, perfectly realized period atmosphere while telling a new story in which the birds are both ever-present yet entirely incidental.
A New York socialite, Daphne Daniels (Anna Douglas), brings her brother David (Alex Clay) up to their old family cottage. Her husband is delayed and we wonder if it’s related to these brief news reports of local accidents. It doesn’t take long for family tensions to arise. Daphne desperately tries to keep everything normal—searching cupboards, offering beverages, engaging in small talk; anything to avoid hearing about David’s incident at college. Even more intriguing, we wonder if the vaguely disturbing event is related to some red-headed childhood buddy.
It’s not presented as a running joke exactly, but I was very amused by how we are introduced to the locals with a series of seemingly sinister sneak-ins. As they appear on the scene, never knocking, the plot thickens. There is Mitch Brenner (Oliver Georgiou), an old flame of Daphne’s that stirs up conflicting feelings; his new girlfriend Annie Hayworth (Kiera Publicover), a mousy young woman caught up in all the drama; and a local grounds-keeper, Hank (Chad Allen).
Those who know the film will notice some familiar names. Emily Dix—wearing many hats on this production (writer, director, props and costume designer)—has cleverly incorporated names and personality quirks from the film into this original story. As the plot unfolds, tensions mount and backstory is revealed, many Hitchcockian tropes pop up—an unhealthy maternal relationship, festering romantic entanglements and a leading man who is both obnoxiously over-confident and undeniably charismatic.
In her script, design and direction, Dix has an astounding sense for classic Hollywood and the sensibilities of the time. Perfectly homaging films of the 1950s/early 60s, the characters and their text are decidedly coy with then-taboo subjects like mental illness and homosexuality. There are also playfully quaint little moments; Annie coming to the door asking for a spare egg to finish her cake is comically nostalgic.
Douglas maintains a defensive poise that echoes the Hitchcock blondes—Janet Leigh, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Vera Miles, and, of course, Tippi Hedren. (Seems almost pointed that she’s brunette here.) Douglas is truly astonishing in the role—mid-atlantic accent, precise and fluid movements; all the performative artifice, but inhabited so naturally I found myself almost constantly swooning.
Dix adds distinctive little flourishes to the period costuming that remind us of Hedren’s outfits in the film. It’s all very Edith Head. There is even a costume change for Douglas worked into the narrative so that we get to see more of the 60s urban chic.
As Mitch, Georgiou is highly endearing. He matches Douglas’s period performance style and is convincing as the cad with a good heart. The other cast members have some very compelling moments, but there is an overall stilted quality to their delivery that doesn’t quite sell the style as effectively.
Wes Babcock’s set showcases period appliances, cabinetry and furniture that feels both too-stylish and yet entirely lived-in. In tune with Dix’s highly evocative vision, the environment feels deliberate. As with the costumes and dialogue, we are always aware of the set as a construct, but it is all such an affectionate recreation of classic Hollywood that the artifice becomes an immersive spectacle.
Babcock also does intriguing things with the lighting; allowing the standard, warm wash to creep into eerie, patterned highlights at key dramatic moments. The piercing tone that accompanies David’s dissociative episodes is also highly effective.
What about… the birds? Oh, they’re around. Dix offers up some clever motivic stuff like all the birdy nicknames people have for each other. There are a couple of offstage attacks on our characters. As the story evolves, though, and paranoia gradually creeps onto the scene, we start to wonder how real the avian threat actually is.
I’m glad that this never devolves into a simplistic it’s all in their heads narrative. Dix’s script is more nuanced and innovative. There is a campy charm to the gruesome finale, pulled off with such intense commitment that it is a genuinely ghastly thrill.
I don’t know if Dix was conscious of these works when writing, but there are two plays (with excellent film adaptations) that her take on The Birds reminded me of: the intimate mind games of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf; and the paranoid frenzy climax of Tracey Lett’s Bug. I’ll leave you with that.