Oscar Wilde's story for children gets a decidedly adult rethink thanks to the always provocative Little Ones Theatre
The second in a proposed trilogy of theatrical adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s fables for children, Little Ones Theatre’s The Nightingale and the Rose is perhaps not as heartbreaking as the first in the trilogy, The Happy Prince, although it’s heartbreaking enough. Wilde’s exquisite stories often deal with highly symbolic figures who, by love and self-sacrifice, show up the pettiness and selfishness of humanity. They’re tales of moral instruction, but they’re rarely strictly moralistic; they’re too delicate and soulful for anything as crass as a lesson.
The story opens with the student (Brigid Gallacher) pining over a woman who won’t dance with her unless she can provide a red rose. The nightingale (Jennifer Vuletic) hears her pining, and decides to help her procure one. To this end, she visits three rose bushes, played here by Yuchen Wang in his underwear. The first rose bush only grows white roses, and the second only yellow. It’s the third rose bush that can comply with the nightingale’s request, but it demands a terrible price. The bird must construct the rose from its singing and dye it red with its own heart’s blood.
Wilde said in his prison masterwork De Profundis that “every single work of art is the fulfilment of a prophecy”, so it seems hauntingly sad that The Nightingale and the Rose can be read as a presentiment of the author’s own fate. The nightingale sacrifices itself for the concept of love, only for the fruits of that love to be crushed and discarded. The cruel traducing of love by the agents of rationality is a central Romantic concept, one which Wilde would come to live personally.
Director Stephen Nicolazzo has constructed an exquisite ode to Romanticism in this adaptation, as detailed and precise as anything he’s put on stage before. The set, designed by long-time collaborator Eugyeene Teh, is a textbook Art Nouveau moon melting exotically into a black-lacquered floor. His musical choices, while perhaps not strictly conventional, are also perfect. Who could argue that The Smiths’ Morrissey wasn’t the king of Romanticism in his day? Katie Sfetkidis’s lighting design is also lovely, often seeming lit by street lamp or moonlight.
The performances are also of a piece. Gallacher is rather understated as the pining lover, but her shift into rationalism is neatly handled and she’s often very funny. Wang is lofty and untouchable as the thorn bushes, and suitably droll as the student’s intended. But it’s Vuletic who really lets rip as the doomed nightingale. She seems to embody Nicolazzo’s queer aesthetic, a figure of tragic poise and dignity, as she swans about and dies in her crown of thorns. She’s hilarious in preparation for her singing, but then when she does burst into song it’s beautifully sincere. Nicolazzo always elicits performances from his actors that are microscopic in their attention to detail, and this is no exception.
These adaptations by Little Ones of Wilde’s stories for children are minor gems, perfect distillations of form and content. Their queerness is inherent, which is why the gender swapping – the student is male in the original story, but here played as a woman – often seems superfluous. The true essence of their queerness doesn’t really lie in gender or even sexuality; it’s in an idea of otherness as something incredibly fragile and worthy of protection or elevation. They intrinsically point to the author’s nature, and Nicolazzo is the ideal theatre maker to bring them, quivering and beautiful, back into the light.