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.

Anywhere Fest: The Nightingale and the Rose

For Anywhere Fest, directorial team Jennifer Bismire, Belinda McCulloch (film) and Richard Grantham (music) will stage Oscar Wilde’s The Nightingale and the Rose in the Powerhouse Labyrinth. I asked Ms Bismire a few questions about their Wilde adaptation.

Q. Describe your show in under 25 words.
A. Three artists across film, music and shadow-puppetry investigate Oscar Wilde’s parable of love versus knowledge amongst the historic ruins of The Brisbane Powerhouse.

Q. Anywhere Festival is about making art everywhere. What makes your venue unique?
A. The old Powerhouse ruins have been a perfect venue for us. A big part of this show is the idea that the new can support, develop and bring life to the old, rather than simply replacing it. The Brisbane Powerhouse as a whole works alongside this ethos very closely, but the outdoor space has this incredible sense of the old, the new and the natural colliding — as well as an extremely intimate feeling for such an open space. We would love audiences to feel surrounded by nature, art, new technology and history whilst still feeling as thought they’re sitting cross-legged, watching a show on their living room floor.

The Nightingale and the Rose

Q. If you could stage your show anywhere in time and space (after the Powerhouse, of course), where/when would you choose?
A. Against the wall of a crumbling cottage in a grumpy elderly forest — the sort of place that time forgets. Either there or in my living room when I was six.

Q. This show has everything, from shadow puppetry to a live soundtrack from Richard Grantham. What do you think Oscar would have thought of the atmosphere you create for his parable?
A. When Oscar wrote this story, the full power and meaning of the Nightingale’s sacrifice, the discussion of love versus power, art versus intellect, was heard through his words alone. 125 years later,  audiences’ attention spans and response to storytelling have altered and developed (though you could argue for the worst).
As a group we’ve been fascinated by how many forms we have to saturate a contemporary audience with to get across the same story of a little bird and her love, which Oscar managed so powerfully with his words alone.
He once said, “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” I’d hope he might see that sense of humanity — and his original intentions — in our piece … though depending who he’s sitting next to he might get distracted by the freedoms of our modern society … or think we’re all twats.

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