TIMBERLAKE Wertenbaker’s play The Love of the Nightingale is a feminist take on the ancient Greek legend of the rape of Philomela by her sister Procne’s husband Tereus, and, as we all know those Greeks knew everything there is to know about human nature and our relationships with the all-powerful gods we pray in aid of our misdemeanors.
Chosen by the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s International Professional Acting MA course for the graduate production at Circomedia in Bristol, and directed by Paul Clarkson and Kim Durham, this powerful and intense drama has particular resonance in these days of “fake news” and the ever-present threat of war.
Wertenbaker starts her exploration by showing men fighting, for no particular reason other than to prove who is stronger and inevitably ending in death.
In Athens, King Pandion is beholden to King Tereus of Thrace for coming to his assistance in the latest internecine war. Pandion has two daughters, the elder and more sophisticated Procne and her passionate, curious and equally cultured sister Philomele. Tereus takes Procne as his wife, and returns to his cultural desert home in the north.
Accustomed to philosophers discussing life on the streets, dramatists producing plays in the theatre and everyone valuing the power of language and debate, Procne is bored and frustrated in Thrace, and asks Tereus to fetch her sister.
On the journey home he falls for her charms and as a final effort to seduce her, tells her that Procne is dead. When that doesn’t work, he rapes her, but she threatens to expose his crime – and his poor performance – to his people, so he cuts out her tongue.
Five years later, Procne, convinced that Philomele died at sea on their journey to see her, finally agrees to take part in the one “artistic” event of the Thracian year, a Baccanalian orgy where the women, usually silent and submissive, are allowed to drink and dance. Out on the streets, daubed in paint and exposed in revealing dresses, the women meet Philomele and her chaperone, Niobe.
The silent woman has made dolls with which she enacts her rape and elinguation. Recognising her sister, but unwilling to accept her account, Procne is finally convinced. When her son Itys breaks into the women-only festivities, he is killed.
This violent and passionate play explores the nature of truth, the power of speech, the stealing of speech and language from women (shades of The Handmaid’s Tale here) and the inescapable realities of sex, strength and warfare.
The stunning production, with its original music by Sarah de Tute and sound by Jessica Edkins, is brilliantly performed by these young actors from America, Australia, Canada and the Lebanon.
The shattering intensity of the story is underlined by a “Greek” chorus, drumming, ululating, gyrating and stamping. The most violent scenes, played out on Circomedia’s thrust stage with the audience spitting distance away on three sides, were chillingly choreographed and realised.
At its centre are the performances by Jessica Leafe as Philomele, Acacia Daken as Procne and Christopher Mudd as a menacing Tereus.
Heather Brooks took over at short notice for the indisposed Tessa Carmody, with Christine Fawaz Ganni providing the only bit of black comedy as Niobe. This is an exceptional group of actors, performing a play that is more frightening than perhaps it has ever been since its premiere, which coincided with the end of the Yugoslav wars.
Photography by Hide the Shark