Anything but a simple fairy-tale

Ebere Nweze is impressed by this unnerving and sharp new adaptation of Wilde’s 'The Nightingale and The Rose'

When I say the best bit about The Nightingale and The Rose is its brevity, I don’t mean it as a backhanded compliment, or an indirect way of suggesting that this play is not worth your time. On the contrary, solid performances from the cast and effective sound and lighting make this eerie reimagining of Oscar Wilde’s dark fairy-tale a successful one, but the play is made most unsettling by its sharp, sudden ending.

Just as in the Wildean original, the Burton Taylor production of The Nightingale and The Rose tells the story of a poor, struggling student whose plans for wooing the professor’s daughter, his coquettish love interest, are hindered by his inability to provide her with her flower of choice—a deep red rose. Neither character, quite rightly,is entirely likeable. We know right from the start that the professor’s daughter (played by Lara Marks) is no angel, but rather as fiendish as her red dress suggests, and though we appreciate his earnestness, we resent the student (Luke Wintour) for being so gullible.

Equally impressionable is the nightingale, however, who swoops down in the form of three white-robed and sweet-toned actors (Anousha Al-Masud, Olivia White, Jeevan Ravindran) in order to find a red rose for the lovesick student. Ultimately she will have to make a great sacrifice for the student to have his rose, but to no avail—the seductress’ rejection turns the student into a cynic:“What a silly thing love is,” the student declares. “It’s not half as useful as logic, and is quite unpractical. I shall go back to philosophy.”

Yes, it sounds like it could have been written by any embittered student, but thankfully Oscar Wilde wrote it, which makes it ten times less cringey than it could have been. And, wisely, writers Georgia Heneage, Bea Udale-Smith and Frazer Wareham-Martin remain faithful to the text for the most part.

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The most notable deviation is the addition of the crows which represent, according to the writers “Nature’s perfect antithesis of the Nightingale’s naive sympathy.” I’ll admit I was not convinced initially when I walked in before the play began to find three crows shedding feathers and writhing around the stage, but the contrasts work. The honey-toned birdsong and white clothing of the nightingale clash with the strangled squawks and black feathers of the crows, reminding us that what would appear to be a simple fairy-tale would be anything but. The play captures the unnerving nature of Oscar Wilde’s tale well.

Indeed, though the play has one or two moments where it seemed just a little melodramatic (perhaps the nightingale’s death dance went on a moment too long?), it is very much an example of restraint and good editing. Perhaps it lacks some of the dark comedy detectable in Wilde’s own work, but it does well to express that idea of the fairytale gone terribly, terribly wrong. So much so, that even though the lights go down after only half an hour, the feeling of uneasiness lasts for so much longer.