After almost a whole year of being cut off from live theatre, it felt surreal to return to Theatre Works for my first show of 2021, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Love of the Nightingale directed by Simran Giria. The return to three-dimensional entertainment after prolonged reliance on screens felt even more dramatic with Theatre Works’ covid-safe set up, twelve Perspex booths surrounding the stage to contain audience groups in comfortable and innovative physically-distanced seating.
The show was a contemporary feminist adaptation of the ancient Greek myth of two sisters, Philomele and Procne, and the contrast of their lives in Athens (where they were raised in comfort) and Thrace (where they faced tribulations and tragedy). The story is dramatic from the onset, with Procne married to Tereus, King of Thrace, and sent away against her will: parted from family, friends, and culture. In Thrace, she experienced debilitating loneliness, homesickness, and a heavy sense of invisibility, prompting her to beg for a visit from her sister Philomele. Procne’s husband Tereus volunteered to safely escort Philomele from Athens to Thrace, but lusted after her on the journey and delayed their return. Telling Philomele that Procne was dead, he proceeded to rape her, cut off her tongue and imprison her to ensure her silence. Philomele was resilient and refused to be silenced, and found a way to Procne, to make known the truth to her.
Natural as it is to focus on the tragedy of Philomele’s story, the outrageous violation of a young innocent girl who had so much to offer and from whom so much was taken away, I could not help but also feel broken for Procne, whose alienation in a foreign land fueled these horrific events. Monique Marani’s portrayal of Procne was subtle yet masterful. She was a woman who was simply trying to live the life carved out for her, trying to make things work with an incompatible husband, trying to raise a child in a culture that was not her own, trying to connect with her attendants and others – only to be faced with silence, evasion, invisibility, and an utter lack of connection. What began as an attempt to resolve her troubles ended up in the violation of her sister, and the death of her son. Her tragedy, although wildly different from Philomele’s, was no less heart-rending.
The Love of the Nightingale is not light entertainment. Violence, alienation, sexual assault, death, and darkness are central themes in this show, respite from which is occasionally offered through lighter character interactions, such as the early banter between the Athenian sisters (played by Monique Marani and Gretel Sharp), and later interactions between two disgruntled royal officials (Lucas Rindt and Amanda Dhammanarachchi). This production was quite text-heavy, which proved to be hard work from an audience perspective, as the acoustics in the Perspex booths were far from ideal. I found that I missed quite a lot of the dialogue, and possibly a lot of the nuance. The arena staging was minimalistic and classy, with a raised platform in the centre that seemed to easily transform into various settings between scenes on land and scenes at sea. Audience groups in different booths would have experienced this show quite differently, as the positions of the actors, while skilfully directed for evenness across the space, were visible to varying degrees throughout the show. The music was effective in its simplicity, and provided a soothing and balancing feel to the show.