2 December 2016. The Theatre on the Lake in Keswick, Cumbria sits on the shore of Derwentwater, encircled by the snowy peaks of the Lake District National Park. On Saturday night I went to see their new Christmas show, The Emperor and the Nightingale, written by award-winning playwright Neil Duffield and directed by the theatre’s Artistic Director, Ian Forrest. Among the children’s shows I have seen the past few years, there appears to be a fascination with the non-material: with bare stages, stories conjured from empty air, deconstructed fourth walls, and backstage transparency, with propboxes, costume racks and musical instruments strewn about in plain view. In our current theatrical moment, there is a lot of conscious play with audience expectation and the traditions of the theatrical contract between performers and audience, and this is a delicious sort of fashion in theatre… but we live in a relative universe, where black allows us to know white, and The Emperor and the Nightingale is like an enjoyable trip back to solid ground, with a lushly realised material world and all the traditions of theatre firmly intact.
The Emperor and the Nightingale is based on the Hans Christensen Andersen story The Nightingale, and gives longstanding Theatre on the Lake Designer Martin Johns the opportunity to revel in the expressive aesthetic of ancient China. The production design is a bright, visual harmony of Chinese architecture and art-inspired backdrops, props and costumes. It gave me a simple and childlike sense of enjoyment to watch richly painted sheets drop down from the fly loft: an Imperial Palace, a hand drawn map of Ancient China, a sacred and magical mountaintop.
Against these, the ensemble cast sing, dance, play music, and tell the story of Emperor Wu, a young boy kept ensconced in the Palace in The Forbidden City by the baddie regent Li. That is, until Wu rebels and leaves the Palace to search for the most valuable treasure in the Empire: the humble, little brown bird with the most beautiful song. Wu is led on his quest by a servant girl called Xiao, and the dramatic tension comes from their unfolding friendship and Wu’s lessons about power, freedom and the real treasures of nature.
The script is engaging, thoughtful and faithful to the gentle spirit of the original tale, and Duffield weaves in many vivid threads that beautify this strong and elegant main story. I enjoyed his expansions and innovations, for example when Wu is challenged by a fierce peasant woman who gives him a piece of her mind about laws and taxes (not knowing he is the Emperor), and who, although she is barely able to feed her own family and has exchanged angry words with him, gives the hungry Wu a fish. Duffield sets up a dichotomy between two different styles of power with the backstory of the Tiger King and the Dragon King: the Tiger King loves war, and the Dragon King loves art, music and nature. Wu, played ably by Martin Sarreal, is the son of the Tiger King, and Xiao, played by Sally Cheng, turns out to be the daughter of the Dragon King.
Sally Cheng’s performance is one of the standout beauties of the show. She brings grace and intelligence to her performance, inhabiting her role with a real sense of effortlessness, and she creates a gentle, strong and interesting character. Added to this, of course, is music and the song of the Nightingale, as one of the most important elements of the show. Amy Gardyne, who sings the part of the Nightingale and performs puppetry and movement with the little bird in her hands, sings rich and true, and performs her movement with mature skill. The music is evocatively pentatonic and well-composed to curve sweetly around the story, and the ensemble cast play all of the musical instruments and sing, ably.
In the story, Wu falls in love with the Nightingale’s song and tries to keep her locked in the Palace, but she begins to sing a sad song instead of a song of happiness. The evil Li-Si sees this as his chance to regain power over Wu, and he has a clockmaker construct a beautiful, bejewelled clockwork nightingale who always, always, only sings a happy (though mechanical) song. Wu becomes fascinated with the mechanical bird, and the real bird flies back to her home on the sacred mountain of Tai-Shan. But the mechanical bird can bring no lasting happiness to Wu, and when he realises he has lost the real treasure of the Nightingale’s natural and beautiful song he falls very ill. The Nightingale hears he is ill, and flies as fast as she can to the tree outside his window, where her song heals him.
One of the rather important but melancholy echoes of the production occurred to me the day after seeing the show, when I was walking around Hope Park in Keswick, listening to the birds singing there. I remembered recently overhearing a conversation between my friend Sheila, 84 years old and a local resident of Keswick, and her best friend Meg. They were talking about the birds that used to visit their gardens, who they never see anymore. A page in the show’s programme is devoted to describing the gradual vanishing of the nightingale from the world and cites a survey from 2012 that showed their numbers fell by 57% between 1995 and 2009. It was sad to think that this is children’s theatre, but it’s the innocent young ones in the audience who might lose the sound of songbirds in their lifetime.
Sigh. But this show is visually delicious, with elegant storytelling and strong performances – it is a delicate evocation of a wonderful children’s tale, on solid theatrical ground.