Feathers in the Snow – Review – Southwark Playhouse
by Stewart Pringle
Review of Feathers in the Snow for Exeunt
Philip Ridley closes a gala year for his work, which has seen the premiere of Shivered, top-flight revivals of The Pitchfork Disney and Mercury Fur and a home run for recent smash Tender Napalm, with a barm-pot children’s adventure that’s teeming with bright ideas. It’s a fond toodle-pip to the Southwark Playhouse’s current venue, too, and feels like an appropriately inventive and chaotic way to close what has been a consistently thrilling and artistically expansive chapter in the theatre’s history.
Cheerily, Ridley and director David Mercatali have pushed the boat out and thrown caution to the wind with an epic narrative than spans decades, pulls together a boggling cast of bizarre characters, and utilized the boisterous masses of the Playhouse’s Young Company ensemble. After the high-tech cluster-fuck of last year’s Howl’s Moving Castle, it’s invigorating and cockle-warming to see a festive production that favours ideas over gadgetry and performances over technophile wizardry.
Feathers in the Snow begins with the story of Shylyla (Deeivya Meir), a young girl born mute and impassive, who comes to life only when presented with the feather of a Blazer Bird. Defrosted by the touch of the feather, she is thrown into a discursive quest that sees her befriend the magical bird, meet a unscrupulously hungry soldier, a lazy king, a tsunami and a witch who shacks up with a dolphin. In structure it resembles an Old Norse saga, its focus and sense of chronology constantly zooming and pulling back, as snatches of the story play out in detail while, elsewhere, centuries are crossed in minutes. It shares some Skaldic themes too, with the creation of myths and of nations, long voyages by sea and great wars fought for facile ideologies. As a comic battle between pernickety historians illustrates, Ridley is concerned with how stories are formed, hierarchies constructed, religions carved out. His conclusion is ultimately incomplete and chaotic, but with a deterministic insistence on the ability of tiny decisions to move huge armies and shape whole worlds.
Its scale necessitates the severe compression of characters, and few even aspire to three-dimensions. Meir is a strong centre-point as wide-eyed and quietly ferocious Shylyla, and there are plenty of engaging comic turns, but the ground is constantly shifting beneath your feet, and unless an audience is willing to go with the flow, they’ll quickly be overwhelmed by Ridley’s iterating fancy. Children have never been troubled by imaginative overkill, and the cheeky glint in Ridley’s eye is likely to be mirrored in those of his youngest critics.
There’s plenty for adults to enjoy too, though it’s possibly too long and too fragmented to retain the focus its quick-fire characters demand, and is riddled with shoddy songs, including a closing number that sounds like a regrettable B-side from a Belgian EBM outfit. Ridley has injected a healthy dose of 21st century reality into the situations and dialogue, and as well as murmurings of urban riots and immigration wobbles, there is also a strong undercurrent of pacifist and humanist ethics. Even in the playground discourse of Ridley’s script, the horror and suffering of war is a pre-eminent refrain. There’s also plenty of black humour and some surprisingly harsh plot-twists; Feathers in the Snow is at its best at its gutsiest, such as in a scene which riffs off the Raft of the Medusa. Here another of Ridley’s leitmotifs is defined: the sacrifice of the weak to utility. For all of its free-wheeling fun, Feathers is a complex piece, and sees Ridley unafraid to seize his young audience and strike out into fresh and dangerous moral territory, and it gives his latest work the bite it needs to see off occasional lapses into syrupy schmaltz.