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Zugunruhe – Pound Arts

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Creator: Tom Bailey

Director: Jack Offord

If a greater opportunity to hear birdsong has been one of the positives of the last year, then Pound Arts’ fan letter to the Marsh Warbler may be the show for you. Combining audio recording of birdsong and flight with physical theatre and a changing soundscape, Zugunruhe, which means migratory restlessness, is a performative ornithology lecture exploring scientific experiments on nomadic bird behaviour.

Structured around six experiments on bird activity conducted by scientists largely in the decades after the Second World War, Zugunruhe is a performance piece in which Tom Bailey takes on the persona and characteristics of several different winged creatures to understand more about their migration patterns and both the climatic and urban impact of humanity on a bird’s interaction with its environment during a flight that takes it across continents.

Filmed largely indoors with only a small wooden box and a projector, Bailey’s piece has a strong science focus explaining the sound patterns and movement of the Marsh Warbler in particular, using different narrators and languages to map its path to Britain. With plenty of them shown to us in Government briefings, the much simpler graphs included here more effectively and clearly plot sound waves and navigation, while Bailey zoomorphically envisages the behaviour and vocal register of the birds he mimics.

We learn that the Marsh Warbler has a particular talent for mimicking the call of its fellow creatures discovered by a Belgian scientist in the late 1970s who hid a tape recorder in the Zambian undergrowth. The narrator notes that human language skills may have developed by imitating birdsong while asking questions about the Marsh Warbler’s confused identity. At this point Bailey breaks down the component parts of a ‘foreign’ song to perform a mixture of these fragments with those of other birds that the Marsh Warbler has adopted, evolving into snippets of human speech with contrasting emotion.

One of the most visually interesting sections uses torchlight and the distribution of feathers to replicate an experiment conducted on a White Throat confined in a planetarium where electronically altered constellations affected the creature’s behaviour or provoked a non-response. As Bailey moves around the darkened room Zugunruhe speculates about our lost connection to seasonal movement that makes bird migration such a focus of research.

The latter parts of the show look more intently at the Marsh Warbler’s migration journey while covering the stateless nature of the birds that puts them at risk of being shot over Malta, the destruction of habitats, the effect of farmland pesticides and changes to the earth’s magnetic field. Bailey dons a virtual reality headset to evoke the bird’s disorientation although the viewer can’t see his perspective, only Bailey wearing it and an audio description of shifts in perception.

With sound composition by Rowan Evans that unites different birdcalls, the sound of wind, traffic and music, Zugunruhe is a strange piece of theatre to watch online where some of its immersive qualities are blocked. With a screen to hand it also seems a shame not to show images of the bird itself or the virtual reality vision that Bailey employs towards the end. But Zugunruhe takes an alternative educational approach to ornithological study and the effect of human behaviour on bird migration.

Runs here until 31 March 2021


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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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