The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

A Silver Arrow in the Air

A heroic, tragic death if ever there was one. The boy who asked questions leaves a few for us to answer.

Burn is Birdman’s story, flowing like a river, meandering without a beginning throughout the events of the day to its tragic end that is signalled in the oblique reference to Birdman marching out towards the sea. The opening sets the structure and tone of the play. Aaron is the narrator of a story that is a ritual and a memorial. The listeners are a group of friends who know the story because they were part of it and will play their parts when the time comes, even though they do not know all of the parts of the story at the start.

I'm very interested in language. It intrigues me. I knew I wanted to do something rhythmic. I wanted somebody to be telling a story and as soon as I found Aaron and that first speech I knew it was going to be rhythm that shaped the play. I wanted to give these young people some dignity. We have such preconceptions about young people, and sometimes our fears are fulfilled, but I wanted us to see beyond the events, to give them something that, if not exactly heroic, at least lifts them out of everyday things.

There is a restlessness about all the characters and a mundane cruelty. They are rude and dismissive of each other but they are all capable of moments of connection: all, in their own ways, finding out how to ‘be’. But Birdman is more perceptive and sensitive than most of them. He is appalled at what Aaron says to Sal when she is too scared to cross the railway line. ‘You gobshite. Talking to her like that. She's your sister. You don't talk to her like that.’ And he takes Sal home.

I worked a lot with children who have problems and issues in their lives, looked-after children, and have only recently learned that if there isn’t space near where you are being fostered, you will have to be moved on and you can be sent a long way from where you live. I was shocked by that. It's one thing to make a choice and go somewhere but to be taken away from your friends and everything you know is really a huge thing. Joey Hawk’s character grew from the groups I worked with. The young people were very needy, as Birdman is, but they took care of each other and were tender to each other even though from time to time things could kick off in unexpected and frightening ways.

The river and the spaces around it are Birdman’s territory. He mooches around on the fringe of things, pops up everywhere and accepts the scorn of the others as if it did not matter. Inside, however, he is trying to deal with the disastrous news that he's going to be moved to Birmingham within two weeks. He says, ‘I'm not going.’ But he knows it is hopeless. Despite this, he can still care for others. When he encounters Rachel he questions her about what she sees in Colin, and he takes her through the detritus dumped beside the track by feckless adults who will no doubt moan about ‘bloody teenagers’. When they encounter the vixen, Rachel sees her as rich and glossy and she thinks it's a good thing they came down the track and then Birdman has to spoil it all by trying to kiss her. She pulls away and says, ‘Get your paws off me.’ Birdman says nothing and walks quickly away.

The sadness is that Birdman loves Linda. Throughout the day you are not sure who he is going to meet next, but whoever it is he can’t make contact. It's like water going around rocks. He goes to see Linda because he fears something terrible has happened to her and there is this tenderness in him and a great concern that grows during the day. I know what happened to Linda but I deliberately left it open. It might have something to do with Colin's brother but it is certainly someone from outside the group. There's an undercurrent (water image again) where everybody except the adults knows what's going on.

Burn is a tragedy. For Deborah Gearing, Birdman's death is an accident. He's not a very good driver and as a result he crushes the car through the bridge parapet. It is just one of those things that happen. An alternative reading however could be that Birdman is so burdened by the news he has had that day and so hurt by the careless rejections he has received that he deliberately crashes the car. Either way, accident or suicide, ‘It's just a story about a boy who kept coming back to the river and who kept asking questions.’ The question we are left with is: if he hadn't died, what kind of life would he have had? For the friends who are telling the story it's all just water under the bridge. He scattered his questions over the water but it wasn't their fault. He is not any kind of hero. He is just a boy who is almost nameless and who soon will be. There's not even a photograph of him so that they can remember him.

I see it as a very simple play. It relies on the acting. Birdman is a very strong part, but it is an ensemble piece and the actors will have to work together on stage. They may not be saying anything but they must be aware. They will all have to dig deep and be sympathetic. That's what acting is all about, after all. It's about finding the part of you that corresponds to the part that is written, emphasising those parts of you that fit with the play and finding out about yourself in the process.

In the final freeze-frame, Joey Hawk, Birdman, is a silver arrow in the air. He flies. A heroic, tragic death if ever there was one. The boy who asked questions leaves a few for us to answer.