So, this is a little later up than planned due to being quite debilitatingly ill recently, and such a shame that I never got this out before the run was over! My sincerest apologies to Waterloo Theatre East and Paradigm Theatre Company. But hopefully, my views will still prove useful and insightful (that’s the plan at any rate). It’s certainly a production that is worthy of being written about.
Sarah Pitard adapts two of Oscar Wilde’s short stories for the stage, The Nightingale and the Rose, and The Happy Prince. Wilde’s fairy tales, often seen as subtle insights into his sexuality and creatively deep responses to injustice and hypocrisies, are here reset and reimagined in and among a gypsy community in 1930s Germany starting to suffer the wrath of the Nazi social eugenics.
Remodelling these beloved stories from being about bombastic birds, forlorn statues, and chatting fauna to a darker setting might seem like a difficult task to pull off. However Pitard’s approach is mindful and heartfelt keeping the essence of Wilde’s delicate narratives and conveying them in a way that enables her audience to connect with whilst avoiding silly and distracting inconveniences such as, ‘having any actors wearing pigeon costumes!’ Pitard’s Third Reich scenario surprisingly feels so natural and un-forced that you can believe Wilde came up with the plot device himself. When teamed with the fresh and enthusiastic Paradigm Theatre Company under the inspired direction of Cat Robey, the result an evening of earnest and moving theatre.
The evening is very much split into two very distinct parts. The first act being the retelling of The Nightingale and the Rose, and the second The Happy Prince. Whilst the setting links the two they are still very separate plays with very separate characters and stories, and their own strengths and weaknesses.
In the first act we get a combination of Robey at her best, but Pitard’s not as polished as could be. Out of the two, this act definitely feels more like a fairy tale than the other. The characters, like in children’s stories, don’t have enough believable depth beyond their predispositions. The text is often a little forced, especially as a lot of it is taken directly from Wilde’s flowery prose itself which is delivered a little awkwardly by the cast at times. But that’s not to make it sound worse than it was. There was still intelligence and emotion behind it, especially Tamar Karabetyan’s who managed to play Florica, the nightingale’s, role of desperation and self-sacrifice with wonderful grace.
It’s Robey’s direction that astounds. Her talent for inserting ingenious nuance into such limited space and resources is unparalleled here. The delicate white flowers dotted around the stage that so easily get trampled by a marauding and ignorant cast is a powerful and heart-breaking little flourish to the narrative. Not to mention that she generally has great command over the use of such a small space, creating tension, movement, and volume out of nothing and in defiance of any limitations. Nothing about the it is ever flat or dull.
But overall the first half just lacks that small slice of charm to propel it into something as captivating as the original fairy tale itself.
Then in Act II the tables are turned. Pitard really comes into her own with her adaptation, but we see a little less flair from Robey. Pitard adds more depth and nuance to the characters actually creating additional complexity to Wilde’s; the swallow a dying gypsy girl, and the prince a rich businessman struck with sudden philanthropy as the Nazis grow crueler. Pitard’s writing is sharp, fluid, but above all devastating, really pulling the audience right into the sheer sorrow of Wilde’s tale. Coupled with fantastic performances it doesn’t take much to be captivated here. Bethan Hanks as Isabella is brilliant, managing to convey an emotionally shattering combination of beguiling and energetic confidence in the acceptance of her fate, and compassion for Mr Prin. She works marvelously alongside Jeremy Gagan as the frail and fretful guardian, and the pair’s performance is enthralling.
However, it’s a shame to see there being little room for the ornamentation that Robey besotted us with previously. It’s still incredibly competent, the creation of a troubling merry-go-round revolving around Mr Prin’s lavish safe-haven being a strong choice, but there’s nothing as stand out as in the first act. Ultimately though, the second act is definitely the stronger of the two, and is the better choice to finish the evening.
All in all this was a production with nothing to declare but a touching and a charming execution of a brave concept.