The other 1940s drama – Among the birds
- It all began in a sleepy village in Sussex – It’s 1940 in the sleepy Sussex village of Jevington. George, a retired mechanic, cheerfully tends his vegetables (for the war effort) when his wife, Lil, comes out with a cup of tea, a piece of delicious upside-down cake, and… a letter from The War Office. “What’s this?” he says. “What’s this?”. Above in a cotton wool sky, bombers set out across the channel. But clouds are menacing, bubbling up like ink blots above the Downs.
- Magpies gather – Hopping in a circle on their twiggy legs the magpies gather. “What’s this?” they cackle. “What’s this?” And then, with clattering wings, they seem to screech, “Peck out his eyes! Peck out his eyes!” But it’s not to George they croak. A raven, black, and sleek as silk, lands nearby on a branch, head held high and wings outstretched, bouncing like a tight-rope walker. The magpies lower their bodies subserviently. “Your time has come, Macbyrd,” they croak. “Listen to the wind!” Amidst the cabbages, broccoli and comic absurdity, a dark and menacing intrigue simmers as a power struggle breaks out amongst the birds.
- A comedy thriller – ‘Macbyrd’ is a comedy thriller. Sixteen of the characters are birds, including Inspector Seed, a pigeon, as the detective! It was set in 1940 and is about the changes to a small village in rural Sussex, Jevington, brought about by the threat of invasion, it’s impact on the local WI, the cricket club, the village play, and on relationships – and on how with the war people must take on new roles.
- Two stories – There are two stories which link together. Up above there is a power struggle among the birds and the swan, symbol of a certain kind of traditional Englishness and social structure, is murdered by the upstart raven, Macbyrd, who resents the swan’s snobbish disregard for the poor, the sparrows. There are, it has to be admitted, a few echoes of a certain Shakespeare play. Macbyrd is told by the ‘gypsy magpies’, outsiders like the witches, that his time has come, that ‘sleek birds, black against the sky’ will rule. In fact change to the village is because a momentous event is going to happen. An air force base is to be set up on the Downs above the village. For both the birds & the humans ensnared in war it is a moment of major change. How will they deal with it?
- How do we deal with change? – Prejudice amongst the ‘oomans puts the death of the swan down to gypsies and among the birds to a foreigner, a rare Indian bushlark which has been swept in by storms. Here’s the serious bit. In the same way that Hitler represented a threat to our values, so too in people’s perceptions do other things today. How do we deal with these ‘threats’ and what indeed do our values really consist of and how should we adapt in the face of change? Inevitably base instincts like prejudice surface. In this cauldron of change the play explores the values of ordinariness (the heroism of living an ‘ordinary’ life as part of a community), leadership, love and adaptivity that remain constants in difficult times. The comedy is partly in the absurdity of the birds’ world, but also – and it is a comedy of manners – in the ways of country folk. So there’s a bit of Foyle’s War about it and a bit of “The Archers” – plus quite a bit of The Rudes, too.