REVIEW: The Nightingale and the Rose (Anywhere Fest)

Directorial team Jennifer Bismire (live production, puppetry and design), Belinda McCulloch (film) and Richard Grantham (music) transform Oscar Wilde’s tale of “love perfected through death” into a multimedia performance piece. Published in 1888, Wilde’s short story tells of nightingale’s sacrifice for a young student in need of a red rose to give his beloved. The parable unfolds through puppetry, text, film and music across seven screens in the Powerhouse Labyrinth and Ruins.

Let’s get any biases out of the way: I know key members of the team, and very much respect their work. (After a while, it’s hard not to know at least someone in any given Brisbane show.) Still, I trust them to trust me to review honestly.

There’s something mystical about shadow puppets. These articulated silhouettes are deftly handled by a large cast of puppeteers (Caitlin Marie Adie, Emily Bruce, Perie Essex, Eloise Maree, Lauren Neilson, Helen Stephens and Sami Van Barneveld).

The garden, across three screens, takes centre stage. At the far left, subtitles tell the Nightingale’s tragic story. On the other side, a live-action film plays out philosophical conversations between the Student and his professors. It’s a very different way to view a show; The Nightingale and the Rose is part-theatre, part-cinema and part-art installation, with the mood of a silent film. You don’t want to miss a thing — but there’s a lot to follow, and missing some (at least from the front row) is inevitable.

The Nightingale and the Rose

The filmed portion introduces new characters to Wilde’s story: two professors who consider the Nightingale’s plight as a thought experiment and guide their lovelorn Student. Wilde’s narration is split between these three figures. With regard to adapting a seven-page story for an hour-long show, it’s a clever idea; however, John Grey, Michael Croome and Tim Gollan’s performances feel unprepared and their dialogue lacks the conviction to transcend its role as a collection of leftover witticisms.

For the show, Grantham has arranged compositions based on works by Lili Boulanger and Olivier Messianen. His evocative performance transfixes, transporting us from the Powerhouse Ruins into the Nightingale’s garden. Still, the presence of the outside world is part of what makes Anywhere Festival different — you can’t stop passers-by chattering, nearby meditators chanting or car headlights flashing, so you may as well embrace the ambient soundtrack. I admired the cast, in particular, as they pressed on during an outburst from a gentleman who verbally abused an usher. (Yes, it’s a ticketed event in a public space — deal with it.)

It’s brave to stage this quiet, thoughtful piece outside of a traditional theatre space. Interestingly, some audience members behave more like cinemagoers: some chat while others even come and go. In last week’s interview, Bismire raised a pertinent question: “How many forms do we have to saturate a contemporary audience with to get across the same story?” Bismire, McCulloch and Grantham’s production is beautiful, but in the attempt to appeal to all types of viewers the story’s simplicity is sacrificed — along with the Nightingale.

The Nightingale and the Rose runs in the Powerhouse Labyrinth and Ruins from 9 to 18 May, 2013. Anywhere Fest.

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