Little Ones Theatre on transforming Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince
Stephen A Russell speaks with Little Ones Theatre about their new production, The Happy Prince.
The wild emotional ride of 2016 was a tough one for many of us, including Stephen Nicolazzo, co-artistic director of queer collective Little Ones Theatre. As such, he felt a necessary shift in their saucily gender queer oeuvre was required for their latest production.
“We’re steering away from irony at the moment in a time that is so fucking cynical and kind of heavy,” he says. “It just doesn’t feel right to produce that kind of work.”
And so, as a counter balance, they will mount an adult version of Oscar Wilde’s beautiful children’s story The Happy Prince at La Mama Theatre during Midsumma Festival.
“That story about sacrifice and sexuality and connection rang true to me,” Nicolazzo says. “It seemed ripe material for us to continue exploring subversive imagery and also use our female cast in a new way.”
Starring Little Ones stalwarts Catherine Davies and Janine Watson, The Happy Prince depicts the sorrowful observations of a sentient golden statue as he looks down on the daily struggles of the forgotten poor in his former kingdom. Longing to help them by giving away the riches in which he has been both immortalised and also immobilised on his lofty spot, the gilded and bejewelled prince is joined by an initially reluctant swallow, dreaming of winter in Egypt. Their strange friendship morphs into a delicate and complex love that soars and swoops beyond the limitations of personal interest.
Not that the follow up to 2015’s silent cinema paean Dracula and last year’s re-staging of Dangerous Liaisons is all wide-eyed innocence. “It’s us, it will always have a Lynchian madness to it,” Nicolazzo laughs. “That’s just how my brain works, but I guess for me it was like so many of the works we’ve produced over the last few years actually are about love and I just wanted to unpack that in a less cynical way.”
The ever-witty, subtly smutty Wilde even bestows innuendo in the opening paragraph, “a large red ruby glowed on his sword hilt,” leaving plenty of room for adult interpretation. Davies and Watson are likewise old hands at embracing a knowing wink and a certain androgyny.
“We’re actually playing more towards the feminine this time with the work because there’s so much rhetoric in relation to how Wilde presents the feminised male and uses descriptive language that is fey and was subversive for the time, to discuss men in that way. I felt like that was new territory for us to look at in terms of the way that eroticism and relationships are played out on stage.”
While fitting Little Ones sex positive approach, the softness folded into the text presented a new and welcome challenge for the company. Nicolazzo is naturally drawn to depictions of female sexuality that are less common on stage than he would like to see, particularly in the queer space. “The market is saturated with male on male sex and I’m so bored of that. When I watch these two women play out this story there’s so much more resonance for me as a queer person. I don’t personally relate to that muscle-bound spunky hunk experience of gay love that you see on television.”
A short story, Nicolazzo has expanded Wilde’s fable by folding in two of his most incandescent poems, 'We Are Made One with What We Touch and See' and 'Ave Maria Gratia Plena'. He says the way in which Davies and Watson tackled the time-honoured tale has been deeply emotional for all of them.
“Their physicality is kind of the key to why we decided to do this project together, because I feel like they can bring so many variations of feminine and masculine representation to the stage, because their bodies and they way they use them are so unique and, not sexless, but not defined by gender, and that’s what I find so fascinating about them as actors. They kind of transcend it in a way that’s really powerful.”
It’s a power wrapped up in Wilde’s wise words.
“There's a reason why he endures and it’s because, for any gender, he represents a kind of persecution of sexuality that sort of hasn’t changed much.”
The Happy Prince, January 18 – 29, La Mama, midsumma.org.au