Theatre: It's a mad world, my masters


Paul Taylor
Sunday 11 April 1999 23:02

FOR THOSE of us who take the view that Nato's antics in the past couple of weeks have amounted to a shameful farce, The Colonel Bird by the Bulgarian author Hrisrto Boytchev comes as a kind of elating therapy. The winner of the British Council's International New Playwriting Award in 1997, this comedy makes a timely debut here in Rupert Goold's exuberant staging at The Gate.

The author reveals in a programme note that the inspiration for the piece came from a weird personal experience. Driving in the mountains near Serbia he chanced upon what he took to be a military camp with about 40 men in uniform, evidently Serb soldiers from Bosnia. He was disabused of this assumption when he was told to "fuck off" in his own language, and noticed a sign indicating that this was the Clinic of the Forty Holy Martyrs.

Boytchev has developed this wonderful image of a mad, embattled state- within-a-state into a telling comedy about barmy idealism and touchingly misplaced reverence for and faith in the institutions of Nato and the United Nations. The piece is set in an insane asylum housed in a bombed- out and severely isolated Bulgarian monastery. The familiar idea of a madhouse run by people who are more barking than the inmates is given a neat twist here. The straight-seeming newly arrived "doctor" Jonathan Aris turns out to be a secret heroin addict who has boned up on psychological illnesses just so that he can pose as a professional and have permanent access to morphine. Every evening, the hilariously acted patients gather to watch the news on a television set that can't receive sound. Instead, amazingly topical-sounding reports about Nato convoys and border disputes and humanitarian aid are invented on the spot by another of the inmates, a lanky trainee actor (the excellent Tobias Menzies) who struggles to disguise the hefty handicap to his stage career (the character is stone deaf) by anxiously lip-reading.

Then, this potty little community is descended on by Damian Myerscough's colonel - a fierce, quixotic visionary schizophrenic who, by a sort of homeopathy, licks the men into a ship-shape fighting unit. There is much play over where true sanity resides: here or in the outer world. The colonel decides that they must join Nato and that to do so, they need to declare the territory they are occupying a separate Balkan country. A madcap scheme of sending messages to European institutions by bird results in the daft yet haunting picture of the company scanning the skies for the awaited reply. And finally, after a millennial march across Europe, the unit is seen still clinging to a pathetic hopefulness and still in training, but now forced to rattle the begging-bowl outside the cathedral in Strasbourg.

Bumping into the author in the pub downstairs afterwards, I enquired whether he has altered any of the material in the light of the disaster in Kosovo. Boytchev energetically denied this. Understandably not wanting to limit the applicability of his play, he argued that the picture it presents will always be relevant - a position with which we would not presume to quarrel.

Paul Taylor

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