The Happy Prince

Theatre, Drama
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The Happy Prince
Photograph: Pia Johnson
Janine Watson and Catherine Davies

Oscar Wilde's fairytale for children is transformed into an adults-only parable about gender, sexuality and class

It is perhaps inevitable that Oscar Wilde’s personality would come to overshadow his work, given how much effort he put into its cultivation. His excoriating wit and extravagant aestheticism were the perfect accompaniment to his most famous works, notably the 1895 play The Importance of Being Earnest. But it is harder to reconcile with the candid intimacy of his fairy tales – such as The Happy Prince. A gorgeous semi-allegorical story of a statue and a sparrow, it also seems an unusual choice for queer collective Little Ones Theatre to adapt, given their preference for all things ostentatious.

Wilde’s tale is simple in narrative terms but profound in its resonances. A prince who “lived in the palace of Sans-Souci where sorrow is not allowed to enter”, is memorialised after his death as a golden statue sitting high above the town. In one of those magical yet psychologically astute touches, he remembers his former life and is saddened by all the suffering he can see beneath him, a suffering he paid too little attention to in life. He asks a passing sparrow to pluck a ruby from his sword and give it to a struggling seamstress, therefore transforming her existence.

Obliging, the swallow gets a taste for charity and so agrees to help the happy prince again, despite the growing cold. This time the statue asks the swallow to pluck out one of his eyes, a beautiful sapphire, and give it to a desperate playwright. This act of self-sacrifice will beget another, and another after that, until the statue is stripped bare, blind and grey, and the bird has frozen to death. The townspeople, now made rich on jewels and gold, discard the bird and melt down the statue. Except for the heart of lead, which refuses to melt.

Director Stephen Nicolazzo has switched the genders of the statue and the sparrow, which alters things cosmetically but not inherently. The increasing passion of the two figures for each other is more sensual than sexual anyway, a merging of souls rather than bodies. Janine Watson brings a taut and melancholic weight to the role of the prince, while Catherine Davies makes for a flighty, watchful sparrow. Together they navigate the specific demands of this tiny chamber piece with admirable poise and presence.

Longtime collaborator Eugyeene Teh has designed what is ostensibly a diorama in grey carpet – the audience so close that someone could reach over and put out a still-burning cigarette on opening night – confining and focusing the drama. His costumes, notably the ’50s style rollerskating sparrow, are Wildean in their wit and extravagance.

Nicolazzo has turned his attention to adaptation before this: his last production was an intermittently outrageous silent film take on Dracula, starring both Watson and Davies. What drew him to this particular tale isn’t as clear, largely because it has less of the camp subversion and potential for parody of his previous work. This isn’t a criticism – it may represent a maturing of his art – and certainly it is refreshing to see him strip his aesthetic to its most essential elements.

Unfortunately, the piece is neither as bitingly funny nor as tragically moving as Wilde’s story. Without the context of the townspeople – who bicker and mock and eventually destroy the prince and the sparrow – we are spared the casual selfishness in the allegory, which in turn undermines the tale’s commitment to the sacred. We miss the denouement, where God asks one of his angels to “bring me the two most precious things in the city” and receives the leaden heart of the prince and the dead body of the sparrow. The play’s inclusion of Wilde’s poem We are Made One with What We Touch and See doesn’t quite have the same impact, beautiful though it is. We are also denied Wilde’s tragically prescient line, one which would speak most eloquently of the man himself: “As he is no longer beautiful, he is no longer useful.”

The Happy Prince is part of the Midsumma program; check out our top picks of Midsumma 2017.

By: Tim Byrne

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