Writer: Barry Hines
Adaptor: Robert Alan Evans
Director: Atri Banerjee
It is accepted educational inequalities and social deprivation increased dramatically during the COVID pandemic. Barry Hines’s A Kestrel for a Knave, with themes of how the lives of working-class children are adversely shaped by preconceptions and limited opportunities, remains, therefore, as relevant as ever. Having already been adapted for screen and stage and even re-imagined as a dance the story is, however, over-familiar and Robert Alan Evans exploits the likelihood audiences may already know the plot with a radical adaptation.
Even before the play starts it is apparent the production is not going to be predictable. The Octagon Theatre is an in-the-round venue, but the layout of Anisha Fields’s set is conventional – a static room with a large rectangular window facing the audience. A collection of ladders and microphones are dotted around the stage and, unnervingly, Nishla Smith is perched, bird-like, atop the set surveying the audience.
Rather than tell the tale in a linear manner the adaptation opens with an adult Billy Casper still tormented by, and reluctantly trying to come to terms with, a trauma from his childhood. As he approaches his final year at school and an almost certain career down the local coal pit young Billy finds some relief from his manipulative mother, bullying brother and brutalising teachers by befriending a kestrel he names Kes. Yet Billy’s bleak circumstances make it tragically inevitable happiness cannot last.
The adaptation does not feature a full cast and makes extensive use of physical theatre. A cast of just three adopt multiple roles. Jake Dunn is the young Billy Casper while Harry Egan, ‘The Man’, performs all adult roles including the mature Billy and his mother. Nishla Smith, ‘The Singer’, wanders in an ethereal manner around the stage mournfully singing delicate standards and serving as a symbol of hope; specifically representing the kestrel, Kes.
As the production runs just over an hour there is a concern it will amount to no more than a series of extracts from the novel. Director Atri Banerjee avoids this potential problem with an uneasy atmosphere making clear events are pulled from the adult Billy’s disturbing memoires. At one point Harry Egan flinches away from Nishla Smith as if traumatised by his loss even as an adult. However, while the jerky, staccato style of storytelling allows the tale to be told within a brief running time and conveys the adult Billy’s confused state of mind, we never get a claustrophobic sense of events closing in on the younger character as his options run out.
The play becomes, therefore, a subjective even stylised version of events. The characters communicate physically as much as verbally. Jake Dunn gives the young Billy’s impression of his brutish brother by grunting and squatting like an ape. A hyperactive Harry Egan takes on a bewildering range of characters and is particularly good at bringing a frightening psychotic edge to the ranting teachers. When a teacher remarks it is impossible to train a kestrel ‘’ You can’t do owt with ‘em’’; he might just as well be describing his attitude to the schoolchildren.
Because Billy’s problems are linked to the characters, they become specific and do not form an overwhelming set of circumstances gathering to form a trap from which he cannot escape. Jake Dunn makes Billy an injured innocent rather than an emotionally deprived member of the underclass. His ecstatic giddy response to his bird is that of someone who has never before known any sort of relief or pleasure. Billy’s heartbroken determination to accept a life of drudgery down the pit is tantamount to a suicide declaration. The only hope remaining is the possibility that, having experienced joy once, it could happen again.
While the Octagon Theatre’s production of Kes is unlikely to satisfy school parties seeking a story with which they are already familiar the imaginative staging offers a new perspective on a classic tale.
Runs until 2 April 2022