WINTER’S TALES at THE SAM WANAMAKER PLAYHOUSE
Harriet Walter is a chilling but thrilling storyteller in this reading of du Maurier’s celebrated shocker.
It’s bad enough when a beefy seagull darts in to snatch your chips on the seafront. But Daphne du Maurier’s spare, brutal story takes birds to a whole new level of conscious savagery as they use aerial power and sheer force of numbers to overwhelm the defenceless humans trapped on the ground below.
In lesser hands, this could sound far fetched enough to be a mere fairy tale, but Du Maurier’s faultless prose makes this surely one of the most sinister and threatening tales in the English language, despite her restraint in the matter of blood and bodies.
Harriet Walter’s cool authority is perfect for its telling. Her voice, scarcely raised, is nevertheless crystal clear, and transmits every ghastly emotion felt by war veteran Nat Hocken and his family as the slow realisation dawns that there is no help coming, no gallant rescue at hand. The pecking, slashing and suicidal birds will eventually break through the stoutest barricades.
Her account of the cheery spirit-of-the-blitz neighbours, Mr and Mrs Trigg, is already heavy with foreboding. Walter is especially effective as Nat’s wavering, fearful wife who’d rather die at once than be left alone with the children to face the birds’ assault, and puts all her hope into hearing news from the radio. But even the plummy tones of ‘This is London…’ have fallen silent.
The Birds was published in 1952. In his programme essay, Dr Paul March-Russell observes that although Du Maurier’s story is most obviously about the overwhelming power of natural forces, she was also writing in a post-war environment where the fear of aerial bombardment, attacks on civilians, rationing and a dreadful sense of abandonment would still have been fresh in her readers’ minds.
Playing the violin to accompany and punctuate the story, Iwona Muszynska adds further intensity to the atmosphere, helping to build a slowly mounting sense of dread.
In his 1963 film version of The Birds, director Hitchcock sexed up the story with the glamorous Tippi Hedren and hunky Rod Taylor – who died this week – both playing wealthy socialites. But there’s none of that fancy stuff from du Maurier. Her victims are farmers and farmers’ wives, close to the earth and believing they understand the rhythms of the world around them.
They are wrong.
The evening also includes du Maurier’s The Happy Valley, an early reference to one of the settings that was to feature in her later novel, Rebecca. This story, about a woman haunted by a vision of a beautiful house in a wilderness, was only published in 2011 after being rediscovered by a Cornish bookseller. It’s a strange, unsettling tale that plays with psychology and time shifts.
But it’s Harriet Walter’s immersive and intense narration of horror story The Birds that really makes this such a fitting finale to the excellent Winter’s Tales series from the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.