Play review: Love of the Nightingale

By Ryan Barlow

The University of Calgary’s department of drama’s latest production, The Love of the Nightingale by Timberlake Wertenbaker, is an intriguing adaptation of an Ancient Greek story that addresses timeless themes of gender roles, violence and silence. Running from October 23 to November 3 at the University Theatre, the director Alyssa Bradac has woven the script into an exciting, disturbing and unexpectedly funny interpretation that touches on many problems we still face today. 

The play tells the story of Philomela (Shannon Murphy) and her sister Procne (Filsan Dualeh), the princesses of wartime Athens. Tereus (Jonathan Molinski), the King of Thrace, is given the hand of Procne in marriage as a tribute. Lonely in Thrace, Procne sends Tereus to safely collect Philomela and bring her to Thrace, but while at sea Tereus rapes Philomela and cuts out her tongue when she threatens to speak about his assault. Like any proper Greek tragedy, it only gets worse from there.

The writer intended for this modern-English adaption to connect with today’s audiences, and prove the story’s relevancy. This is shown by the occasional breaking of the fourth wall, where the actors tie story elements into current issues. The themes are fairly easy to pick-up on, with the play immediately hinting at the link between sexuality and violence as sheltered Philomela swoons over the soldiers training below her platform, like Rapunzel over Prince Charming. In the world of the play, women like Procne are used as currency to pay for the security offered by the Thracian king. Philomela’s aide, old Niobe (Hodan Dualeh), explicitly tells Philomela to stay quiet about the rape as she washes Philomela’s shivering body after the incident. The women are forced to be subservient and silent, and connections are drawn to how this trend continues in society today.

Subtlety is not one of the play’s strong suits, and some of the dialogue can be a bit dull at times, but these blemishes can easily be forgiven. The play can be surprisingly funny at times, with a highlight being the miniature play-within-a-play that rather humorously lambastes meta-drama and acting clichés. Yet, despite these forays into lighter territory, sombre exploration into the silence of rape culture and the especially uncomfortable scene of the act itself reel the audience back into the stark and frightening reality of the play’s message.

Gender roles are challenged throughout the play, with society’s expectations of both men and women being called into question. The militant men who march in sync are all in the same uniform to show how cultures press people into cookie-cutter molds, and even though the sailors know better than to allow Philomela to be raped, an ‘orders are orders’ attitude prevents them from challenging the status quo. 

The ensemble of women of the Thracian court are caricatures of global representations of beauty and, likewise, the women are apathetic in how they approach Procne’s inquiries about the fate of her sister. Gender roles forbid men from questioning authority just as the women are prevented from challenging men.

Particularly powerful aspects of the performances include Dualeh’s strong sense of timing and intonation, Molinski’s assertive body language, Murphy’s silent retelling of Philomela’s tragedy and Dualeh’s development of Procne’s character. Other stand-out characters are the spunky and playful Itys (Michael Cheim) and the hilarious Phaedra (Maxine Bennett).

Well-choreographed and perfectly-timed, the production is gripping. The cast members genuinely appear to enjoy their roles and perform them elegantly and professionally with little, if any, overacting. In Greek theatre, actors often have to go big or go home, but it never feels like the cast is going overboard. The set is minimalistic and orbits a cylindrical stage that wobbles to simulate waves at sea. Costumes are co-ordinated, clever and stylish, spanning many cultures and eras to represent the universal nature of the play. 

With its powerful themes, gripping relevancy and excellent performances, the U of C’s department of drama has set a high bar with the haunting and powerful The Love of the Nightingale.

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