DramaReviewSouth West

The Love Of The Nightingale – Circomedia, Bristol

Writer: Timberlake Wertenbaker

Directors: Paul Clarkson and Kim Durham

Reviewer: Kris Hallett

Funny how often theatre can feel like buses. You wait ages to see a production and then two turn up one after another. Connor McPherson’s The Weir will play at both Bristol’s flagship theatres within a year of each other, but only seven short months separate two productions of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s modern take on the Greek myth The Love Of The Nightingale. Yet they are effectively two very different beasts. Bristol Old Vic’s Young Company gave the production a punk rock aesthetic, full of propulsive energy and chaos. Bristol Old Vic Theatre Schools production is more stately; clearer in its telling of the story but also unquestionably drearier. It paints pictures on the stage like work from the antiquity but doesn’t get its hands dirty enough in the soil of violent rumblings. It rarely stirs the soul. It never sucker-punches. It never yanks the guts out. Greek tragedy should.

You wonder if the concept from the YC production has affected thinking here. Clarkson and Durham are normally highly playful directors, strapping skateboards into Renaissance comedy and inserting the bawdy into the classical. Here that naughty energy is grounded, the dark comedy that the YC found grounded here for grand pronouncements. There is a tendency to let slip some old-fashioned declaiming that had seemingly gone out of fashion in the RSC when Peter Hall left. 

It deadens Wertenbaker’s work. It’s a tale full of incident- Philomele travels overseas with brother-in-law Tereus to reunite with sister Procne but falls foul of his lust filled rage and is stripped, first of dignity and then of his tongue (in the most visceral scene of the night)- yet strangely one that lacks in the journey. It’s at its sharpest when it lets the text be its focus. The words ring round the space, loaded with meaning and dark poetry. The colour of international accents from the MA students originally jars but soon adds an international element to a myth with worldwide significance.  It’s politics touching on the oppression of women, of voices being silenced, of man only finding significance in violence still feels highly significant. Yet this production is too static and too lacking in drive to make it feel urgent. Every time it starts to build something comes along to push back against it, whether a broad performance or a clunky directorial decision.

Staging it in thrust at the lovely Circomedia does allow designer Susan Pearce to create a highly striking set, four marble columns marking out the white playing space, smeared in dark reds as a symbolism of the bloodshed that has occurred to make the land and soon splashed in newer brighter shades of the stuff.

There is striking work from Jessica Leafe as a girl forced to grow up, going from wondering what a man looks like naked to coming face to face with it in the most horrifying way. Finding herself voiceless she comes up with an ingenious plan to still extract vengeance on her oppressors. Acacia Daken is a sympathetic presence as the sister, removed from her home to become a lonely Queen, her only company a chorus of woman, garbed in tight black dresses like glamorous servers at the Met Ball. Of the men, Samuel Taylor brings a sympathetic air as the Captain quaking in a desire for forbidden fruit while Miles Puriton radiates funny from the second you view him,  a quality that seems the preserve of North American comic actors.

Back in January, the heat and oppression of Wertenbaker’s work surged through the auditorium. Yet on a muggy July evening, the only heat generated was from a sweltering auditorium; the stage remained glacially chilled.

Runs until 22 July 2017 | Image: Contributed

Review Overview

The Reviews Hub Score

Striking but somewhat static

The Reviews Hub - South West

The Southwest team is under the editorship of Holly Spanner. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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