Writer: Timberlake Wertenbaker
Director: Miranda Cromwell
Reviewer: Kris Hallett
After the sugary excesses of the Christmas season trust Bristol Old Vic’s Young Company to start a new year of theatre with something as bracing as Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play The Love Of The Nightingale. Originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1988, its themes of male privilege and issues of consent seems more pertinent now than ever in the aftermath of Trump’s locker room bravado.
As James Brown crooned, it’s a man’s world, dominated by the uber masculine types of warrior King Tereus (Toby Robertshaw) who, as reward for helping win a war, is given the hand of Hannah Hecheverria’s Procne. Taken away from Athens and its world of culture and festivals, she soon longs for her sisterly companion Philomele, and asks her husband to collect and bring her to their home. On the long journey back across the sea, his initial flirtation with his headstrong sister in law turns into dark obsession.
There is no doubt Philomele is a bit of a flirt, a wide-eyed ingénue that as a child is intrigued by what occurs between the marital bed sheets and playfully teases the great warrior in their first encounter. Yet as they sail and she begins to form a connection with the Captain, gender swapped here to be a women that suggests her sexual proclivities may not lie with the male sex anyway, it leads to violent jealousy and a sexual assault that leads towards a bloody and devastating conclusion.
Miranda Cromwell has relocated this Ancient Greek myth to a modern club setting, with pulsing dance music, military garb that wouldn’t look out of place in modern day Exarchia and the sisters’ familial similarities represented in garish pink disco wigs. By and large the concept works, modern nightlife still finds women in fear of sexual violence, where some men think that if they want it enough it’s automatically their right. As Tereus says at one point, holding a knife against his prey, consent isn’t always required. Robertshaw invests the role with dead-eyed bluff, a man who struggles to express himself through words, its only actions of sex and violence that can truly define him.
Imogen Downes Philomele journey stretches the young actor to the limit, a test she passes with flying colours as she evolves from a wise-cracking, young girl up for a good time before she begins to realise what this attitude can mean to her safety. Her later pain as atrocities are thrown on her like Lavinia from Titus Andronicus is powerfully conveyed. The only way towards redemption is her own form of violent revenge.
Yet Wertenbaker doesn’t just follow the one salient point. She addresses some of the complexities women face in the form of Niobe- given a lively performance by Alexandra Wollacott – an older nurse figure who stands back and does nothing as the main atrocity is committed, and then rails at the moment danger passes for a women as their looks fade and men now overlook them for something fresher. Women, Wertenbaker suggest, can and still want to feel defined by the wants and desires of others.
Tim Streader’s lighting design mixes imagery from both the modern club scene to the hazy glow of the Dutch Golden Age. It’s a complex and tough watch but is put across with great verve, commitment and ownership by the always enterprising young company.
Runs until 13 January 2017 | Image: Jack Offord