It’s Wilde, Wilde, Wilde!

April 9, 2010

They’ve gone Wilde, Wilde, Wilde at Bewley’s Cafe Theatre this April with back to back productions of Oscar Fingal O Flahertys lesser staged works. First up is The Birthday of the Infanta which runs from the 6th of April to the 8th of May and is directed and adapted for the stage by Bairbre ni Chaoimh from the short story of the same name. It is followed by Wonderland’s site specific production of The Picture of Dorian Gray in the lesser used tea rooms downstairs as part of the One Book, One City festival.

“Its like a fairytale for adults.” Ni Chaoimh tells me when I ask her why she wanted to stage The Birthday of The Infanta, her fourth Oscar Wilde adaptation after doing The Happy Prince, The Selfish Giant and The Remarkable Rocket for Storytellers.”Quite a few people who wouldn’t be aware of it because it doesn’t get included in children’s anthologies as there is a lot of adult stuff in there…and the ending is so terribly sad. To my knowledge it had never been staged before so I had to build up the characters and put in far more dialogue and half the length of it. Its quite dense, there’s a lot about the politics of Spain, the Spanish inquisition, etc and I wanted to keep all those colors in but in a condensed form.”

It is the twelfth birthday of the Infanta, the Princess of Spain, and it is a grand and marvelous affair. Snake charmers, Egyptian musicians, puppets, bullfighters, monkeys and bears all come to entertain the Infanta and her friends. But the one that makes her laugh loudest is the open-hearted little Dwarf-or Grotesque- brought in from the forest to perform a wild woodland dance for her. She is so delighted that she throws him a white rose and insists that he dance again after dinner.The innocent young Dwarf is over the moon and he is sure that the Infanta has fallen in love with him. Determined to declare his devotion to her, he decides to sneak into the Palace to find her…but what he finds in the Palace will break his simple heart.

“Oscar Wilde had such an obsession with whats real and whats sham, what truth is and what artifice is and I think The Birthday of the Infanta is very relevant.” Says Ni Chaoimh. “Its about obsessive love, peoples heart being broken an it makes you think about the life of the royals who seems to have everything-yet this little girl doesn’t have a mother, is abandoned by her father, is only allowed play with children of her own rank(so she is always on her own) and is constantly surrounded by people telling her what to do. But there is also a lot of fun and a lot of satire and this wonderful language that just has to be spoken out loud, that is so sensual it just makes you want to move.”

Was it a challenge to cram it all into the tiny Bewley’s stage? “For the most part what you are thinking about is that its a bijou theatre so you have to work on a much smaller scale. But it can be a really magical place because it can be so intimate. Its a great place to experiment and be truly creative because when you don’t have all the resource of a big space then you have to think outside the box. Which makes the audience use their imagination as well.”

One woman who is constantly thinking outside the box is Alice Coughlan whose Wonderland Theatre Productions has carved out a name for itself for its site specific shows peaking with the massive success of the classic Italian comedy La Locandiera staged in a Tapas bar. It all started when she saw a Sheridan play and felt so distant from the text. “It was these actors far away in the darkness jumping around in wigs and costumes, with actors rattling through the stuff and not really communicating.I wanted to get to know the characters beneath the wig , get a sense of them as real people, have them come in amongst us.”

She set up Wonderland who in their short seven years have carved out a reputation for being the most exiting new Irish company since the early days of Rough Magic.”I think because of the nature of the experience it makes Theatre more acceptable, it makes classical text less scary. Its very easy for actors to get up there and forget to engage the audience, whereas in our productions when the actors are sitting right there, eye to eye with them. They can never really get away from one another, they can see when the audience aren’t interested and they have to re-engage because they are right there.”

She was a huge fan of the One City, One Book festival and attended most of the events around the city last year but she felt that the theatrical dimension could have been better served. She spoke to the organisers of the festival, who let her in on the secret of this years book which got her thinking about what format it should take when staged. Having previously put on The Spook Show in a candle lit Georgian bar, Molière’s The Miser in a stately Georgian home and last years excellent production of The Hostage in the birthplace of Pairc Pearse she decided to go for afternoon tea and intrigue in her staged reading of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

“I just love afternoon tea but I can only really do it every 18 months because it is such an indulgence. Which is also one of the themes of the book, indulging oneself and the endless search for sensations. So we start of reading a book which begins with afternoon tea but goes to the darkest part of Victorian society-The opium dens of London and murders in the attic and some really appalling events.” She was attracted to the paradox of the book-a horror story that was also very, very funny- and wanted to find a way to present it that was different from previous attempts. “I am an avid listen of talking books and I love being read to so I was really interested in combining these ideas and how different an experience it was to have a book read to you was as opposed to just reading it yourself.

“But my actors are actually very keen that I shut up about the reading aspect.They feel that they are not doing that at all at this stage.Its very much a performance of the book. There is a lot of narration, but you can act out narration, they’re not just standing. They’re walking and talking and coming in behind people and nobody is left with the narrative for very long.”

Wilde is, of course, still relevant today, this book perhaps more than most. But need he be? Does theatre always have to educate or strive for relevance?Sometimes, just sometimes, is it not enough to just entertain? “Its a great debate one which Oscar very much engaged in and, having read a lot of his writing in preparation for working on Dorian, I think he was very much of the mind that art was for arts sake. He didn’t believe that all art had to be relevant. I’m not of the mindset that it’s not enough for art to just be art it had to be something else as well.

“For me its typical, British Arts council thinking which luckily we don’t have here. Where you have to say how a piece of theatre is going to engage with the elderly of the community, the ethnic groups, the children and everybody else and if it doesn’t educate…well then its not good enough. In my mind entertainment, pure entertainment can be of great relevance for what it does for your soul and that was Oscar’s opinion as well. And i find that really great shows can get sidetracked by these agendas

“At the same time I would always hope that what i do would be that little bit more transcendental. Entertaining for me is always number one and if you are not doing that, nothing else is possible but i would hope to move the audience both emotionally and intellectually as well , leave then with something to think about.”

The Birthday of the Infanta, Bewley’s Cafe Theatre, April 6th to May 8th @ 12.50

The Picture of Dorian Gray, James Joyce Tearoom at Bewleys of Grafton Street, April 13th to 1st May @ 4.30pm


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