This week Bristol Old Vic Young Company present a fierce and modern interpretation of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Love of the Nightingale, a play that challenges perceptions of consent, gender and sexuality. Wertenbaker’s play draws on the Greek myth of the rape of Philomele: the Young Company shift the action in time and space to a modern-day nightclub with a cocktail of original rave music, dance and a twist of humour. Here’s director Miranda Cromwell to tell us more.
Tell us what drew you to this play in particular, Miranda.
Timberlake Wertenbaker is a brilliant writer. She writes about themes that are difficult, and very resonant today. She’s unafraid to write flawed characters who are fun and interesting to play – as well as difficult to direct. Scenes are often very economical – they carry a huge amount of narrative, and you only have a very short amount of time to put in all the depth of the character and their world, as well as the history and the politics of the play – all that whilst trying to entertain!
She also strikes a brilliant balance between writing for the ensemble and creating brilliant individual characters. And she has created a story that is powerful and insightful, but isn’t afraid to entertain.
Where and when you have set your version?
The Love of the Nightingale is based on the lost tragedy Tereus by Sophocles, and is from the Ancient Greek myth of the rape of Philomele. On reading, the play follows elements of those versions, and also has some modern references – which are very occasionally spoken through the chorus. Aside from that it’s set in Greece, and it’s set essentially in an ancient time.
We have reset the play to a nightclub in the late 1980s/early 1990s. We realised that so many of the characters and themes – rape culture, victim shaming, the bystander effect – are themes that we’re grappling with at the moment. We’re trying to understand why sexual violence within our society is still so widespread, and yet somehow we still find it so difficult to talk about it.
What are the play’s big themes, then?
Censorship, the nuances and difficulties aligned with gender, and the difficulties of asserting yourself and your sexuality. What happens when we set this in a more modern, recognisable time, and a location that carries a lot of sexual connotation and energy, is that we look at the play afresh. We still have a long way to go in terms of dealing with sexual violence – how we talk about it, whose responsibility it is.
Is there room for humour among all this?
Yes! Part of the humour does come from playing with stereotypes around our attitudes to gender. Laughs often come from the women talking about men before they really understand what sex is, and from looking at the actions of both men and women and finding humour in how we play up to those gender stereotypes.
It also comes through the characters. Philomele is a character full of joy, and part of the tragedy is what happens to her. Her fate is that that joy and open curiosity is used and abused, and she is silenced as a character. Initially the play itself is quite funny, and I think our choice of setting, playing with music and other elements, has further embraced that.
The Love of the Nightingale is at Bristol Old Vic from Jan 10-13. For more info and to book tickets, visit www.bristololdvic.org.uk/the-love-of-the-nightingale.html