'The Nightingale' – Horse + Bamboo
Horse + Bamboo are consummate puppetry artists and ‘The Nightingale’ showcases their visually dynamic and inventive puppetry techniques.
The tale doesn’t make for an obvious adaptation for children, steeped as it is in Hans Christian Andersen’s customary darkness. A foolish Emperor imprisons a nightingale to try to fully possess its beautiful song, only for it to be usurped in his affections by a bejewelled mechanical toy. It’s a parable about power, our relationship with others and man’s hubris in trying to replace the natural world with something containable and controllable. Strong themes, then, for a young audience but universal enough to be accessible, if well handled.
Writer-director Alison Duddle has made some effective choices in, as she describes it, ‘blending’ this story with others, such as Ovid’s 'Metamorphoses'. Thus the nightingale is given an alter ego as a beautiful servant girl from the palace, helpfully extending the possibilities of the relationship between the bird and lonely emperor.
The sequence that crosses from mask into shadow and then miniature theatre to bring alive the girl’s transformation is breathtakingly evocative. The focus moves from the vivid intimacy of a masked character on the fore stage, to an animated shadow sequence where her wings sprout, before, in miniature, she flies across the night sky of the kingdom.
The translation of the mechanical bird into a Wii-style computer console also really brings the nightingale alive for the audience. However, the graphic aesthetic jars and there’s a danger that this section undermines its own moral by becoming the most compelling moment of visual storytelling for the audience.
Re-conceiving the foolish king as an oversized baby is a clever choice, bringing the protagonist more clearly into connection with the show’s audience. Sometimes, though, the work feels like it is struggling to reach out to the children. The storytelling is beautiful but slightly soporific. Much of the action occurs behind a wide, three-panelled playboard, which creates a physical barrier between the audience and the story. This is broken at times, though not enough. Chris Davies’ continuous underscore doesn’t help as it makes the production feel more like a film than live theatre.
It is impossible to fault Horse + Bamboo’s production values. Bob Frith’s puppets are beautifully crafted and the set is ingenious. The level of detail and control brought by company stalwart Mark Whitaker with emerging talent Aya Nakamura is a real pleasure, and the adaptation brings depth and interest to an elegiac tale. But the gorgeous presentation ultimately lacks some theatrical pizzazz and so fails to draw a restless audience entirely into its beautiful world.
Horse + Bamboo
Dome Studio, Brighton