Writer and Director: Lily Hayman
Kings X Theatre
March 7-12, 2022
It is a pity that Lily Hayman’s Fledgling is showing for such a short time as it offers its audience a deeply emotional, intellectually provocative, and aesthetically satisfying experience. Inspired by Joshua Lobb’s A Flight of Birds, a novel composed of twelve short stories, Hayman’s luminous adaption gives much needed insight into why when our human habitat is threatened we find it difficult to change inherited patterns of behaviour.
The play opens with an almost choreographic account of a family situation. A mother (a wisely maternal Jessica Melchert) and daughter (Claire Gilmour) – and a curious and impersonal “narrator” (Michael Ho) whose role is to prompt questions – stand in line but it feels incomplete. When the father (a convincing Benjamin Stonnil) eventually emerges from the shadows to take his place in the lead, they come together in a family circle – almost like a nest – and perform a sequence of movements, passing one gesture to another repetitively.
While the family lives as a unit, the man is often away “somewhere in his head”. There are moments – over an anecdote of a bird stealing bacon from a plate of scraps – when daughter and her father meet but, as the sly narrator steps in to tell us, a moment is not a moment as it can endure for a lifetime. The man’s story is gradually revealed, and we learn that the mysterious and troubling wail heard near the ruined schoolhouse is an expression of his childhood grief when he learned of his mother’s death. Grief that he could never express to a taciturn father isolated him from others and deep anxiety imprisoned him in fixed behaviour.
Interleaving their dysfunctional family life, we are given anecdotes and information about birds. Notable, is the recording of a fledgling kookaburra learning to laugh from its parents and, most significantly, our attention is focussed on the imitative and magical lyrebird, its dance movements beautifully captured by Michael Ho. The young lyrebird learns unique sounds from older males through constant practice.
While not completely comparable, the ability to learn complex behaviours is shared by human and the bird world, and the question becomes whether the restricted emotional range of the father – or the bird called Sorrow – will be transmitted by imitation to his daughter? Or are there options? While the conclusion of the play is unforgettably poignant, it is made apparent it is a possible and not a definitive end.
A highlight of the performance was the lovely image of flying performed by our mysterious narrator gliding above the earthbound image of the father as a troubled young man. How would a bird tell this man’s story? And as we know so little about what our non-human sharers of the world know or what they might want – and with too many of us thinking “warblish” represents the real voice of birds – we have long considered ourselves a superior creation. But we are equally and undeniably dependent on a threatened habitat – so what are our options if we want to survive?