Adam Gordon of TOOTH+NAIL theatre company tells us more about Hummingbird.
Hummingbird was born from a curiosity about crime. It’s the dark side of the perennial question, “What makes people tick?” What pushes people beyond the bounds of acceptable behaviour, even to the point of murder?
Our extensive research period took in everything from police interview transcripts to Agatha Christie to genuine operating instructions for an electric chair. During this time, we stumbled on the story of Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck. Fernandez was a conman: he met vulnerable women through newspaper Lonely Hearts ads and stole from them. Beck was a disgraced nurse; when they met she was working as a mortuary attendant. Something blossomed between them, something powerful enough to entice Beck to stay even after she learned the truth about her lover. Powerful enough, moreover, to drive her to the jealous murder that became the couple’s modus operandi.
Certain aspects of the story were immediately striking. At heart, it’s a strange tale of love, with a burning question at its centre: why did they stay together? We can only infer from scant facts and their own unreliable testimony, but we sense the intensity between them. On a broader level, both Beck and Fernandez were social outcasts. This was America in the 1950s, the defining decade of the American Dream – but not for them. Fernandez suffered a trauma to the head that altered his personality, putting him out of the merchant navy and landing him a brief spell in prison. Beck fell pregnant out of wedlock. She had to change towns and lie about her past. We wanted to explore this complex relationship, and set their story against the broader social picture. We decided not to recount Raymond and Martha’s history, but to develop the questions it raised through characters of our own invention: Edith Cole and Ralph Conti.
Hummingbird follows Edith and Ralph step-by-step on the journey from their first meeting to its final consequence. The biggest challenge was how to dissect their relationship without defending their actions (through, for example, extensive back stories). We developed a visual language that uses acrobatics and movement to explore the delicate balance of power, need, tenderness and violence. The wider society exists in the presence of the Cop who tracks Ralph and Edith down. He embodies the mores and institutions that are in part responsible for what happens.
Time and place are fundamental to Hummingbird. The show uses a complex soundscape of voices and testimonies interwoven with 50s music and advertisements to create a delicate but potent impression of post-war America. We have few props with us onstage, but carefully chosen items of vintage clothing are richly evocative. Against this backdrop plays out a strange and compelling love story, that we hope is moving and horrifying by turns. We’re very excited to be bringing the show to Oxford, to be performing here for the first time, and to share Ralph and Edith’s story with a new audience.
Hummingbird is here on Friday 3 November. £12/£10 from oldfirestation.org.uk or 01865 263990.