Dublin Fringe Festival 2023: The King Of All Birds
Martha Knight in The King Of All Birds. Image by Owen Clarke
She says thirty minutes, but it’s an hour. An hour before a new king of the birds will be crowned. In the meantime, the woman shrouded in the black Kinsale cloak and pointed bird mask has a lot to say This strange woman resembling a druidic troubadour travelling through the mists of time. Harbouring notions about wrens and mythical men and modern aviation. Oh, and she likes to sing. Short snippets, like bird calls. Excerpts from Wild Mountain Thyme with guitar, or flute, remixed with a little reverb onstage. The mystical and modern colliding in a vocoder. Making for a clever juxtaposition, echoed in the ancient attire and the aerial photo of a farm in Mayo projected onto the back wall. Echoed again in the juxtaposition of myth and machinery that runs throughout Martha Knight’s eccentric curiosity that is the delightful The King Of All Birds.
It begins with the wren. Knight recounting the mythical tale of its rationalised skullduggery to become the King of the Birds. Till it was slaughtered each December 26th by the Wren Boys, who displayed its body on a stick for money before burying it. Yet the wren has a peculiar backstory and symbolism, as have many birds in Irish mythology, which Knight doesn't do justice. It was the beating of its wings against Irish shields that revealed their whereabouts to the Normans. Neither tale doing the wren any favours in the popularity charts. Similarly, the tale of Mad King Sweeney which Knight also selectively interprets, cursed to wander as King of the Birds before meeting his prophetic demise. Leaving a job vacancy with a poor record of happy ever afters.
Interspersed are textual tidbits, most read from a thick tome. And musical sound bites, like snatches of bird song, mixed at the pace of Ed Sheeran suffering a hangover. Serving up a New Age soundtrack that wouldn’t be amiss at a progressive spa. As she sings and plays her instruments, Knight looks upwards as if serenading the birds. At such times you might think she is one for the birds, but Knight is much smarter than that. Even so, when it all comes home to roost, the whole offers less a birds eye view so much as a Did You Know Fact Book filled with Google gleanings. A deft costume change shifting focus to tales of Irish aviation, women aviators in particular, as it finally comes in for a landing and the strange, new king is revealed.
What might have made for a cute curiosity at thirty minutes often feels like self-indulgence at an hour. Its scattering of theatrical bird seed not quite the satisfying snack. Yet what keeps you riveted is not the tales, or the music, but Knight’s piercing, calming presence, whose deadpan, matter-of-fact directness is a little bit irresistible. The performer outshining her performance. Like Jackanory meets an episode of the Open University, The King Of All Birds is a weirdly wonderful combination that yields most when surrendered to. Plodding and ponderous, or wonderfully eccentric? The King Of All Birds is a little of both. Either way, it offers definitive proof that one person shows needn't slavishly follow the same worn out format.
The King Of All Birds by Martha Knight runs at Project Arts Centre until Sept 16 as part of Dublin Fringe Festival 2023.