Jhe owl and the nightingale may have been written 800 years ago, but its anonymous author shows that human nature almost never changes: two rivals joust in the treetops using words as spears in an attempt to injure the other.
However, proving the exception to the rule, two men from the West Yorkshire village of Marsden – Poet Laureate Simon Armitage and his lifelong friend, theater manager John Tiffany – collaborate on a performance of the medieval poem that Armitage translated Last year.
Armitage’s translation of the Middle English original was the fourth of the medieval poems he rewrote for modern audiences and he suspects it will be the last. Part of the reason is that there just isn’t anything else quite as fun.
The Owl and the Nightingale could hardly be a bigger contrast to the day-to-day work of Tiffany who ran seven productions of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in seven cities. He co-wrote the play with JK Rowling and playwright Jack Thorne and is due to leave for Tokyo soon to oversee a Japanese-language production.
In contrast, The Owl and the Nightingale will be performed on a bare stage at the Royal Court Theater in London and the only props will be copies of the script.
Armitage will narrate and the Owl and Nightingale parts will be read by Meera Syal and Maxine Peake. One day was set aside for rehearsal. As a testament to the skill of his actors, Tiffany was happy to temporarily leave seven Harry Potter and hundreds of cast members in the hands of others so he could work on a show with just three performers.
The cantankerous owl and the quarrelsome nightingale are each convinced that they are right and are impervious to persuasion. Their discussion is so reminiscent of social media clashes that the editor was happy to call Armitage’s translation a “Twitter spat.”
In the world of entertainment, Armitage is the dark owl and Tiffany the nightingale with bubbles lighter than champagne. Tiffany is a few years younger than Armitage, 58, and won’t let him forget that.
Their fathers, who recently died within six months of each other, were best friends their entire lives and were members of the same amateur dramatic society and marching band. Their grandmothers played whist in the village hall, extolling in their hands the exploits of their precocious grandsons.
Tiffany said: “They were much more competitive than the two of us. Simon’s career took off long before mine. There would be newspaper stories saying he’s being considered Poet Laureate and that I’d be an assistant director on a play in Edinburgh and I’d always say, ‘Please grandma, I’m incredibly moved and flattered , but I don’t think we’re going to win this particular battle,” but they kept going, which Simon and I loved.
“With him being Poet Laureate, I was ‘look at you being all posh’. I always like to point out that we weren’t really friends when we were kids because I’m a lot younger than him. I’m not really younger, but I like to point that out.
Tiffany sees the avian rivals as two divas, think Hilda Ogden and Rita Fairclough of Coronation Street. Armitage didn’t have to work on the parallels. He said: “I don’t think it’s a didactic piece, I haven’t translated it because it contains a moral lesson for our times, but I definitely see reflections and echoes of our times and I don’t think not that they need to be amplified too much to be clear. They are two birds that have a barney of over 900 rhyming verses.
He added: “The most obvious parallel or comparison is that we live in very divided, very antagonistic times. What interests me about these two birds is that they absolutely believe they are right. It fits perfectly with the times we live in, in that people have access to ways to air their opinions so easily and so fiercely.
“The birds have their positions and they are unshakeable. The way they go about announcing their positions isn’t just to talk about the strength of their argument, it’s also to undermine and attack each other’s arguments. They do it both in a rational and logical way and in a scurrilous and vulgar way as well.
Armitage says, “Being in a room with John, watching him work with actors, asking him to tell me what to do, it’s just a lot of fun. We’re the Marsden Boys and we’re the hottest ticket in town.