Highly lauded company, Little Ones Theatre, is returning to Theatre Works next month where they pay homage to another Oscar Wilde classic fairy tale, The Nightingale and the Rose – but, beware, this is not for children!
Following on from their award winning 2017 production of The Happy Prince, it would seem that Little Ones Theatre and Wilde’s aesthetic value continue to lie comfortably in sync. A sentiment shared by director Stephen Nicolazzo.
Read on as Nicolazzo fascinatingly discusses all things the play; the playwright; challenges, themes; his own love of the work, his theatre, his ambitions and process:
The aesthetic value of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, in particular, their poeticism, haunting imagery, and empathetic characters were all key factors in the decision for Little Ones Theatre to continue exploring their adult subtext on stage. We want to create dream-like theatrical experiences, and Wilde’s magical gothic playground is ripe with visually sumptuous potential. That is first and foremost what is so alluring about the stories and adapting them for stage. They inspire us to imagine. They allow you to create and inhabit worlds unlike the one we live in and do so with cheeky wit and heartbreaking sensitivity.
I admire The Nightingale and the Rose for its unashamedly lurid and vivid prose, its brutal honesty about the power of love, and that it evokes a melancholic portrait of both the plight of artists and lovers. The two are entwined in this story, and as an artist I relate to that. A work is like a lover, something or someone you dedicate yourself too wholeheartedly, who attracts you, turns you on, and ultimately, can break your heart. Like the rose that is created out of the Nightingale’s song, blood, and heart, art can be discarded, criticized, and left out in the cold. It can also be embraced and everlasting- which is why the Nightingale of the story is so quick to sacrifice her life for a young student’s pursuit of love.
Within The Nightingale and the Rose’s lush and florid literary descriptions lie deeply human questions- it’s not simply a cautionary morality tale for youths. The story asks us how one can create connections and love freely in a cold, critical and savage world? Do we apply the same material value systems to love and art as we do fortune and prosperity? What are the consequences of giving into temptation and allowing desire to take hold of you?
Wilde delves into these questions by connecting us to characters that are not human in a literal sense, but possess all of the desires and passions we associate with human experience. In that sense, these fairy tales are inherently queer, as they explore human behavior through the lens of the other, the uncanny- humanizing song birds and roses, giving them souls, in order to reflect the inner-longings of those whose romantic desires are deemed unacceptable by their society.
Like our production of The Happy Prince in 2017, this story explores how empaths sacrifice their very livelihood in the name of creation. I am drawn to this aspect of Wilde’s work, as it allows him to dissect homosexual and artistic experiences and sacrifices through allegory. They are almost like Old Testament stories or ancient aural myths for queers.
What I am most drawn to in these stories is that in spite of their form- children’s fairy tales- they possess a deeply erotic and sensual quality. It’s the eroticism that allows them to linger in the minds of adults, and makes them striking in a contemporary theatre context. They are exploring mythological and grandiose themes, all with the beating heart of a romantic and a cynic. This contrast between romance and cynicism is central to The Nightingale and the Rose, which gives it such a contemporary tone- this debate continues, which hopefully makes for an insightful and exciting night of theatre.
I think there is a reason these fairytales have endured since 1888, and that primarily lies in the fact that they are soul-searching spiritual narratives written by a queer artist. The tragedy and humour of the stories and the emotional impact still resonates, and perhaps does so more in hindsight, because we as audiences and artists know what happened to their author. Wilde’s personal history, persecution, and loss struck an incredibly deep chord and one can’t help but think of his ultimately tragic existence when reading the tales. I think it is both the emotional intensity and passion of The Nightingale and the Rose and the historical impact of Oscar Wilde is what links past and present so strongly.
Wilde explores sexuality and identity in these fairy tales in a similar fashion to say The Picture of Dorian Gray or his symbolist tragedy, Salome, too. Homosexuality and transgressions are embedded in every image, every exchange, but they are not titillating or vulgar they are human, which, at the time was perhaps cheekily subversive and uncouth. What is so shocking and perhaps contemporary about the stories is how well they have aged- they do still resonate, as myths and fairy tales do, as their ideas are not bound by time and place. They are designed to somehow transcend context and be applied to every society, every person, every where.
At the time of writing the story, Wilde was actively criticizing those who found his aesthetics meaningless and hollow- he overtly attacked critics who chose not to find depth in the images he created. The notion of art for art’s sake was frowned upon, so he created a tale that was centrally about this notion- taking inspiration from various poets and artists like Keats and Homer to create a literary pastiche of images and old ideas for the sake of artistic exploration. The question of purpose was to make meaning out of style. In doing so, I think he made an emotional case for the power of image and its effect on the reader.
What he is also doing in The Nightingale and The Rose is highlighting an incredibly sad portrait of love and artistry in a period that scorned subversion and flamboyance in favour of moralistic Christian values. The thing that is so brilliant about Wilde’s fairy tales though is that in his subversions, he is also using Christian iconography and moralistic ideas, images of Christ, or self-sacrifice, true and honest practices, through unexpected, queer, and uncanny characters and situations. Its radical and playful in a way.
We have yet to begin the rehearsal process, but the most challenging thing when devising a new adaptation is getting your head around telling the story to audiences who may never have read or heard of it before. You can’t assume that everyone is familiar with the text, so as you are scripting or improvising on the floor, you always have to make sure that the image you are creating is linked to the source material, or at the very least, telling a version of the story that is clear and as emotionally impactful as the original. That is a tricky one. There will also always be things from the story that are edited out to suit the direction we, as a company, are wishing to take the piece- so that the experience is cohesive for viewers unfamiliar with the text. Sometimes you can’t please everybody, and lovers of the original might crack the shits about certain omissions or approaches, but you have to stay true to what you want to say with the story, and that always dictates how you develop it.
The greatest joy about working on this project is diving headfirst into Oscar Wilde’s imagination and prose and building new images and ideas from within it. It is so weird to say this, but I find working on Wilde’s stories as pleasurable as sex. Something comes over me and it is incredibly elating and inspiring.
I love gothic and horror genres (Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Bronte sisters, Mary Shelley) and stylized poetics (Jean Genet, Wilde- of course, Tennessee Williams, Peter Greenaway, Sally Potter) as they deal with repression, oppression, sexuality, desire, and transgression in all the ways that excite me. They are ethereal, not of this world, but at the core of their dark and twisted hearts, incredibly human and filled with pathos. What I also like about these genres is that they are all about atmosphere. Atmosphere is central to my practice as a theatre director. I want to create moods and worlds for an audience to experience that they have not seen before entering the theatre. These styles, with their heightened visuals and larger than life characters, do that for me. They arouse the senses, and the loins. They are erotic. They are sensual. That is what I am looking for in my theatrical experiences.
If you liked anything I have just said about Oscar Wilde, romance, sex, atmosphere, and the enduring beauty and sensitivity of the gothic fairy tale genre, I think it will be worth your time.
May 30 – June 10