Zugunruhe is an ornithological term—from the German ‘Zug’, migration, and ‘Unruhe’, restlessness—used to describe the ‘anxious behaviour’ experienced by birds during the migration season. Dispiritingly, the phenomenon was discovered partly through scientific experiments in which birds were held in captivity during the migratory season. Even caged, the birds knew they should have been travelling.
This unusual performance-led production is the result of a Leverhulme-funded research project by Tom Bailey exploring patterns of migration in birds and humans. Through his purely physical portrayal of the marsh warbler, Bailey effectively stands for all creatures with a migratory instinct. Bailey folds and unfolds, stalks and stretches, silently emulating the warbler, no doubt in movements observed through diligent study.
Through numerous voice overs, we’re told about the marsh warbler’s migration pattern and the frequently shocking experimental history through which zugunruhe in migratory birds was ‘discovered’ and understood. Bailey has not chosen his hero, the marsh warbler, for nothing. We also learn that the warbler migrates from Europe to South Africa, collecting songs from fellow birds as it travels. As a consequence, listening to the song of the marsh warbler, with its constant imitative interweaving, is like listening to a sonic map of the bird’s migratory route.
Bailey also weaves into his narrative the story of the dramatic decline of migratory song birds in Europe. They are hunted in huge numbers across migration routes in the Mediterranean and those who survive face difficulties in finding nesting sites in Europe due mainly to intensive agriculture and habitat degradation.
Although the voice-over narration is fascinating and thought-provoking, the production feels nevertheless unresolved. To a certain extent, it feels like theatre that wants to be something else, a book or even perhaps an exhibition. The substance of Zugunruhe is not in Bailey’s physical imitation of a bird, but in the content of the voice overs. If Bailey weren’t here, we’d be listening to a podcast on migratory song birds. By contrast, if the voice over was removed, we’d be watching a man silently attempt bird imitations for an hour.
Bailey has previously created productions in the style of hoax TED-style lecture and Zugunruhe feels one level of abstraction removed from this, but again, not in a way that feels resolved. There’s an excellent production at the heart of Zugunruhe, but Bailey has to fall out of love with his research—admittedly much easier said than done—and figure out how to make a work that couldn’t possibly be anything other than theatre.
Zugunruhe was performed at Zoo Southside as part of the Edinburgh Fringe 2018. Click here for more details.