Taking a seat for The Nightingale and the Rose on Wednesday night was like entering an aesthete’s den. The set, beautifully designed by Tilda Coleman, makes much out of little. From the walls hang short threads of ivy, and from the ceiling a huge round orb. A large pile of books sits upstage, working as a clever substitute for a raised platform. It is simplistic but elegant and, in this way, serves as an apt representation of what the production holds.
Bea Udale-Smith and Georgia Heneage, both first time directors in Oxford, have excelled in adapting an Oscar Wilde short-story for the stage. The fairy-tale narrative follows a young student (Luke Wintour) desperate for the affection of his professor’s daughter (Lara Marks). Before he can dance with her, however, she says he must first give her a red rose. At this point, a nightingale intercedes and, taking pity on the young man, decides to take it upon herself to find the couple a flower. Ultimately, however, the bird is forced to sacrifice herself for this task, and the romance becomes disturbing and violent.
Reading the description beforehand, I was cynical. The production appeared to contain all the worst tropes of student drama: unrequited love, claims of radical reinvention, anguished white men. The two directors, however, manage to avoid ever slipping into cliché or theatrical laziness. Each moment feels precise, simple, and deliberate, and the direction is supported by an equally strong cast of performers. Wintour is playful and self-aware, cleverly gesturing towards the parodic elements of the role but also translating a genuine sense of sadness and hurt in the darker moments. Meg Harrington, Angus Fores and Amelia Coen also bring an injection of energy with their ‘Crows’. Garden animals in the original story, the Crows are a frightening trio of grotesques that stalk the stage throughout with evocative, carefully choreographed movement and unnerving vocals. Already on stage when the audience walks in, they never let their physicality drop.
The biggest commendation must, however, go to Anousha Al-Musad, Olivia White, and Jeevan Ravindran as the Nightingale. They work together as a graceful triumvirate who haunt the stage. Their soft, high-pitched singing feels raw and perfectly captures the mood of the piece. Each of them maintain a stunning quality of movement: they remain perfectly in time with one another, while giving emotive individual performances. Ravindran’s uncertainty, White’s melancholy and Al-Musad’s beautiful wide-eyed ethereality lend the bird something magical, and form the heart of the piece.
The Nightingale and the Rose is underscored by eerie music, which is integrated with great nuance. The lighting design is clever and subtle, and the piece ends with a striking set of silhouettes. By the time of this memorable conclusion, the stage has been covered with (another ingenious idea) pages that have been ripped from the books onstage in a bold metaphor for the destruction of beauty and art. At one point in the piece, the Student decries artists as ‘all style without any sincerity’ – but one simply cannot say that of Udale-Smith and Heneage. Over in just half an hour, this is a short, sharp shot of innovative, playful and sincere drama.