SBW Stables Theatre, June 27


Janine Watson. Photos: Robert Catto.

Ah, to be enchanted once again, just for an hour. Regrettably, an obsession with the literal – with drab reality – often denies our stages their chance to be that source of wonderment. Actors shout and furiously emote, but the plays themselves bleed only dried and blackened blood. This adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s didactic fairy-tale begins with a vision of such transporting awe as instantly delineates it from the naturalistic norm. Of course it had to be: you can hardly tell a story where birds and statues talk, and pretend it’s real…

Had the beauty, sadness and winking Wildean knowingness of this opening and of other theatrical flourishes strewn through the play been sustained for the whole hour, this would be more rapture than review. Alas, the adaptation could not maintain the magic. Perhaps the creators’ imaginations ran slightly dry, or perhaps imposing a sexual love story on to Wilde’s tale distracted them.

Those opening minutes present Janine Watson as the statue of the Prince, clothed in gold and holding a broadsword, with glittery tears glistening on her cheeks. Pose, expression, costume, lighting and music are in perfect harmony, and if Watson never spoke a word, a deep truth of the tale would already have been realised.

No playwright is credited, so presumably the play was collectively devised by Melbourne’s Little Ones Theatre. Much of the dialogue comes from Wilde: indeed, the more it deviates, the more cracks appear.

With the Prince a woman in a gold dress, how to depict the Swallow? Simple: a retro rocker (Catherine Davies) on roller-skates. The fluid motion of the skates provides a skimming parallel to flying, although the character’s Puckish, rather boisterous quality is only a cousin of Wilde’s bird, compromising the crucial conflict it should suffer between desire to please the Prince, and desperation to chase after its flock’s migration to Egypt. Instead this Swallow falls in love with the statue (and vice versa), and sacrifices itself to this love.

Catherine Davies and Janine Watson. Photos: Robert Catto.

The core narrative remains intact, with the “happy” Prince mourning the plight of the many impoverished people in a kingdom that, as a child, “he” had thought was all beer and skittles. The Swallow dutifully delivers the red emerald from the Prince’s sword to the poor mother of a sick child, and then the two sapphires that constitute “his” eyes for a playwright too cold to write and for a little girl likely to be beaten for bringing her father no money.

The Swallow’s plucking out of the eyes is staged with all the economy of a Japanese artist’s brushstroke, and makes for an image to match in horror the beauty of the opening. But whereas Wilde’s tale grows ever sadder, the taking of the eyes here becomes the climatic point. Yes, the Swallow still freezes to death to stay with her blind statue-lover, but director Stephen Nicolazzo could not find enough such telling visual coups (beyond a delightful rendition of a birdbath).

Watson delivers an affecting performance as the Prince, and Davies is certainly an engaging Swallow, even if some of the portrayal’s implications seem to clash with each other. The design elements are consistently striking, however, from Eugyeene Teh’s simple set and bolder costumes, to Katie Sfetkidis’s lighting and Daniel Nixon’s imagination-stirring sound and music.

By way of an ending Watson beautifully delivers the closing stanzas of Wilde’s great love poem, Panthea (“…the stealthy creeping years/Have lost their terrors now…”): verbal glory to echo that opening vision. If only such wonders had been routine.