The Early Bird

Catherine Cusack and Alex Palmer in Leo butler's 'The Early Bird', presented by Natural Shocks Limited. Photo: Stuart Allen

Catherine Cusack and Alex Palmer in Leo butler's 'The Early Bird', presented by Natural Shocks Limited. Photo: Stuart Allen

It’s a pleasant shock to walk into the Project Cube and find the actors already at work in Donnacadh O’Briain’s production of Leo Butler’s two-hander. Encased as they are in a clear Perspex box, primarily lit from below, and wedded with the rank smell from the fertiliser strewn about the floor, it’s impossible not to feel like a visitor at the zoo, come to observe a rare and dangerous species whose antics fascinate even as the stink they give off repels.

Debbie (Catherine Cusask) and Jack (Alex Palmer) are a couple whose daughter has… disappeared? Been abducted? Run away? You would think that the loss of a child wouldn’t need a qualification, but in Butler’s treatment of what is surely a parent’s worst nightmare, we find that it does matter. As the couple play out the spiral of accusation, excavation, and grief that has become their life, one has to wonder, if one was their child, if we too wouldn’t have left for school one day and just kept walking.

Given such high profile cases as have concerned Madaleine McCann and the Soham Two, we have found ourselves witness to the pain and frozen horror of men and women who have had their offspring robbed from their lives, and one can’t help but speculate about what happens behind closed doors. What do they talk about? Can they talk about anything but the event? Do they blame one another? Do they have sex? Is their relationship completely destroyed? Butler’s piece isn’t really interested in these questions, and gives us an artful, if distant, portrayal of a psyche of a couple rather than imagining their reality. This is not a kitchen sink play — it’s about the stuff in the drains.

O’Briain directs his actors to perform a dumbshow for us as we sit and wait for the rest of the audience to seat themselves, a repertoire of actions and reactions that carry over into the spoken part of the piece. Over 'The Early Bird' presented by Natural Shocks Limited at Project.and over, the couple come together, whether to dance and kiss, or to tumble about laughing, or for one to push the other away, and we get an excellent sense of the rhythm that their life has taken on —or maybe 'existence' is more apt. Debbie relentlessly narrates the sequence of events of the fateful morning, from what Kimberly ate to what was on the telly, to the fact that she herself had forgotten to observe daylight savings time. Anything and everything becomes totemic, from Jack’s unusually early leave taking, to the argument about the umbrella that Debbie wants her daughter to carry.

Jack insists that his departure wasn’t any earlier than usual, and that, in fact, his wife and daughter’s scuffling about umbrellas and Christ knows almost made him late. He’s a fastidious fellow, who lays out the next-day’s clothes the night before, and yet he is all alpha male, who is horrified that his daughter has actually come out of his wife’s vagina, a cut-up vagina at that. He is equally rather disgusted by his daughter, who he terms retarded, and fat, and blames Debbie for all of that. If only the obstetrician hadn’t needed to use the forceps on his baby’s head, then she wouldn’t be so stupid. If only his wife’s gash had been bigger, they wouldn’t have had to pry his daughter out of the birth canal.

Lest we think that Jack is the villain of the piece, sleep-deprived Debbie seems to have come dangerously close to suffocating her screaming infant, and accuses Jack of having an affair, or several affairs. She is entirely lost in trying to figure out what went wrong that day, that specific day, to the exclusion of all else, including the existence of her partner.

Of Kimberly herself, we have only her parent’s word for who she was: an angel, a retard, a girl beloved of her friends, a bully’s target. She is the literal and figurative construction of her progenitors, and it’s impossible to say what age she is: when she is performed by one or the other of the actors, their voice distorts into that of a very young child. And yet, she is often referred to by them as being “at that age” – the age, one suspects, of puberty, when all bets are off and the transition from childhood to young womanhood is fraught with danger.

By extension, it seems unfair to judge Debbie and Jack, even as they tell us and show us who they are. Hopelessly narcissistic one moment, heart-breakingly helpless and lost the next, Butler is daring us to judge these people. A far from perfect couple, and far from perfect parents, are we being asked to wonder whether they deserve to lose their child, whether they should be punished for struggling to be ‘good parents’? He seems to force us to perceive them as less-than-saints, and seems to weight the balance of the action on the side of their character defects; indeed, Cusack and Palmer are most convincing when they are playing out the darker side of their characters than when they are performing their love for their daughter. Overall, the pervasive sense of Debbie and Jack’s reaction to their daughter’s absence is that of having been abandoned, as if they were the children and she the adult.

Ultimately, we don’t know what happens to Kimberly. We don’t get any of the drama of a police investigation, or televisual appeals, or media coverage. We all know what that looks like. What we are given to look at is stylish, visually appealing, if olfactorily appalling. But we adapt even to the slurry-like stink of our surroundings, and it may be here that the point of Butler’s text is at its most clear: that when we narrate our lives, no matter how horrific or mundane the circumstances, we get so used to the textures of the stories, that we can’t separate the truth from the lies. You’d think it would be the lies that stink, but the truth is, one wonders if Debbie and Jack will be happy enough perform loss and abandonment for the rest of their lives, bravely containing their horrible story, but content to let everyone watch it play out.

Susan Conley is an author and journalist.

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Early Bird by Leo Butler

9 - 26 June, 2010

Produced by Natural Shocks Limited
In Project Arts Centre

Directed by Donnacadh O’Briain

Designed by takis

Sound Design and Composition: Philip Stewart

Lighting Design: Paul Keogan

With: Catherine Cusack and Alex Palmer