Assistant Director for Kes, Martin Leonard tells us about his recent visit to SMJ Falconry centre in search of inspiration for the production.
Going on the excursion are Jack Lord and Dan Parr, the two actors in Kes, and members of the creative team – Amy Leach (Director), Max Johns (Designer), Lucy Cullingford (Movement Director), Tom Mills (Sound Designer) and Robert Alan Evans (Writer). It feels a bit like a school trip – a morning out of the rehearsal room and a real treat. It’s very exciting, most of us have never even seen a kestrel, let alone got the chance to experience one up close. Our destination is SMJ Falconry, a centre located just outside of Oxenhope, a sleepy Yorkshire village off to the west of Bradford.
When we arrive the first thing we notice is the open space – the rolling hills brown with heather, the hedgerows just turning green with the arrival of spring. In the distance villages and towns are folded into the landscape, old industrial chimneys poke up between dips in the hills. It is a day of all weather – in the two hours we are there we get sun, wind, cloud, rain – at one point even a light smattering of snow.
Dan and Jack are both handed a hawking glove and we walk into the field to be shown how to use a lure by a young falconer called James. The lure is an object that falconer’s use to train, fly and exercise their birds of prey, otherwise known as raptors. It comprises of a small leather object, roughly the shape of a small bird’s wingspan and sometimes with bird feathers or tassels attached to it, connected to a long length of cord wrapped around a wooden handle. A piece of meat is attached to the leather pouch and the lure is swung round in circles – the idea being that the raptor will chase it and try to grab the food. James explains that you get the raptor’s attention with the swinging motion, and then when the bird dives for it, the falconer throws the lure forward, and just as the bird is about to catch it, pulls it quickly back and out of a talons’ grasp. You then repeat this a few times as the bird flies and dives about you, before finally allowing the bird to catch its ‘prey’. Swinging the lure correctly takes a little practice – getting the angle and timing right can be tricky. It can get tangled pretty easily and there is the very real danger of swinging it into your own head. Jack and Dan get the hang of it soon enough – the to and fro, as the lure is thrown forward and pulled back, alone is quite hypnotic. Amy and Lucy begin discussing how they might incorporate the movement and its rhythms into the show.
Once perfected James offers to show us a live demonstration. Due to it being a windy day, and kestrels being a smaller bird, we instead get to see him use a lure with one of the centre’s larger falcons. Sandra, the owner of the centre, brings the bird out into the paddock and passes the lead to James. He slowly undoes the tether around the falcon’s leg and suddenly, with a few powerful beats of its wings, the falcon is off into the air. It’s an explosion of power and it’s incredible to see the speed at which she travels up and away from us. When enough height is gained the falcon spreads her wings wide and floats on an unseen air current, head clicking from side to side, surveying the landscape and scanning for prey. James begins to swing the lure and with deft grace, the falcon tilts its wings and whoosh, dives at incredible speed straight at James’ lure. James throws the lure towards the incoming falcon, but at the last second pulls it away – the raptor speeds passed him and with another tilt of the wing swings around to make a second attack. This time though the falcon soars behind us, and makes a dive directly through the watching people. We all instinctively duck as the bird silently swoops just centimetres from our heads. Sandra explains that the falcon is using us as cover to try and trick James, and indeed the birds will sometimes fly up into the sun so that James cannot properly judge the distances or see when she is on the attack.
There are more than 64 birds at the centre in total. We enter through a gate into the garden area where the birds are kept during the day. Each bird of prey sits silently on its own perch and as we enter the garden you can feel their keen eyes watching you – the experience is a little unnerving. All at once the silence is broken by a loud ‘WUMPH-WUMPH’ as a large vulture near to where we are standing leaps from its perch in what appears to be a dramatic attempt to escape, but bound by a tether it can only flap ineffectively. When a bird of prey is panicked and tries to suddenly fly from its perch, or a falconer’s glove, this is known as bating. It turns out that Julie (the vulture in question) is not a fan of bright colours and was most likely startled by Amy’s bright yellow coat.
We finish the trip with a chance to meet a kestrel up close. Tiffin is actually a rescue bird, who was found when he was left abandoned in a birdcage when his owners moved house. He even had to eat the newspaper in the bottom of his cage to survive. Now he is far healthier and up close he is truly beautiful: brown feathers speckled with black and white. Sandra describes the process of training him to fly at the lure. Before Tiffin is trained to fly at the lure, he learns to fly from the hand to a stationary lure with some meat attached – he is kept on a long cord in case he panics and flies off into the trees.