Thursday, 12 January 2017

'The Love of the Nightingale' at Bristol Old Vic

Bristol Old Vic Young Company - photo by Jack Offord
While the famous Bristol Old Vic building on King Street is undergoing extensive renovations, the team is using the opportunity to take the shows that would have been in their (currently out of action) Studio on walkabout to other venues in the city. 

As such, this production of The Love Of The Nightingale from Bristol Old Vic's Young Company is being performed in the Bristol Bierkeller on All Saints Street (which claims to be Bristol's oldest nightclub and, since 2012, has also functioned as a theatre as well as a live music venue). It's charmingly German retro in here as the name suggests: all low artexed ceilings, cavelike arches, tiled floor and long benches. 

All in all, it seems the perfect location for the Young Company to perform their production of Timberlake Wertenbaker's play The Love Of The Nightingale, which here is directed by Miranda Cromwell, after having first been written for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1988. The play is a contemporary and feminist re-telling of the ancient Greek myth of the rape of Philomele by her brother-in-law Tereus, and the silencing of women in the face of gender power struggles. Despite this obviously being based on a centuries old tale, the themes sadly still ring very true today. 

Bristol Old Vic Young Company - photo by Jack Offord
(Please note: the plot summary below contains a few spoilers.)

Athens is at war with Thebes over land. And after the king of Thrace, Tereus (Toby Robertshaw, playing a most unenviable role with conviction), steps in to help, he takes the king of Athens' daughter Procne (Hannah Hecheverria) as his bride. In doing so, he rips Procne away from her beloved younger sister Philomele (Imogen Downes) and the rest of her family, and takes Procne all the way back to Thrace with him where she must learn to live with her loneliness, as well as her new role as a mother to their son Itys (Jacob Rayner Blair). 

After five years, Tereus agrees to return to Athens to bring Philomele to make Procne happy. While on the return voyage, all of Tereus' soliders and Philomele's chaperone Niobe (Alexandra Wollacott) can sense the danger looming as a result of Tereus' strong sexual attraction to the innocent Philomele - which ultimately leads to him raping her in a truly shocking scene (while the audience obviously doesn't see anything graphic, the screams of Philomele are genuinely haunting). 

What ensues is Tereus telling each sister that the other has died, and when an already enraged Philomele discovers the lie she finds the strength to rant at Tereus about what a small, cowardly, pathetic man he is... only to be silenced in the most brutal way. An act that ultimately leads to his own downfall.

Bristol Old Vic Young Company - photo by Jack Offord
This a brave, no-holds-barred performance from the Bristol Old Vic's Young Company, which has a long tradition of not shying away from tough topics. As Philomele, Imogen Downes shows herself to be an actor really worth keeping your eyes open for - her performance was strong, impressive and powerful. Given everything that Philomele endures, this wasn't a role that just anyone could have carried off, but Downes more than does the part justice. 

However, I did feel the production would have benefitted from a little trimming. The slightly confusing actions of the first half could have been summed up in a much shorter period, as it is in the second half of the performance where The Love Of The Nightingale really comes into its own in a much tighter script.  

Sensitively handling issues such as rape, consent, revenge and gender struggles is no small ask, but in this production director Miranda Cromwell has found a way to convincingly put across how relevant and important all of these are. The way the sisters are treated as commodities, the lack of attention paid by the male characters to the wishes or opinions of any of the women, the apparent irrelevance of consent to the powerful men... all of these issues are addressed with care and consideration here. 

So bravo to the Young Company for a strong and innovative piece of feminist theatre. 

The Love Of The Nightingale is performed at Bristol Bierkeller until 13 January. Click here for more information and to buy tickets. Please note, the Bierkeller is a cash-only venue.