This performance expresses everything I love about theatre - a daring, high-wire piece that leads the mind through unexpected visions and emotions. "Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang" is woven together and directed by Martin Parr, who prior to this staged a memorable Doctor Faustus, also at the Rose. When I heard that Parr was doing Shakespeare's sonnets, I thought - great - that will be worth seeing. However, nothing prepared me for this.
What Parr has done here, quite masterfully, is to shape Shakespeare's most intimate writings into a haunting play, which explores every facet of loving relationships. He has done this through letting the Bard's words flow through a morphing love affair as it goes through stages of lust, longing, disdain, outrage, anger, separation and reconciliation.
He sets the stage in Autumn, and sitting expectantly with glass in hand, I found the setting fascinating. The stage and lighting team of Florence Watts, Max Mosley, Christine Dubois and Francesca Baker present a scene of an unmade double bed, a half drunk wine bottle next to it, with several lamps, a bare table and a old chair, with dead leaves scattered around it. Highly atmospheric. A realistic nowhere. A double bed in a room for one person.
This is a fragile piece, that depends entirely upon its two actresses, Katherine Heath and Lucia Capellaro. Lucia is the muse of the piece, the partner, the object of desire, hope and regret; and she embroiders this role with virtuoso playing of the cello, which at times becomes a third person in the relationship. Katherine is alone, but not alone, expressing her evolving and sometimes contradictory feelings for Lucia, who is relatively unchanging. Katherine, the lover, experiences wildly varying feelings - from infatuation to irritation; at times reflecting upon the inevitable death of her partner, at other times spitting out poisonous jealousy.
Sitting in the audience, this is powerful stuff, and the flowing, but unpredictable performance raises strong emotions. These come powerfully to conclusion in the final scene where a distraught, lonely, Katherine is trying to play her (possibly now dead) lover's cello in the hope of capturing just a little bit of her magic, her voice, her scent. I won't spoil this for you, but it is one of the most powerful and creative scenes I have ever witnessed in theatre - one that has stayed with me, and lured me back last night for a second chance of seeing it.
Walking away from from the performance, I drifted towards the Thames, and reflected that this gem of a play shows why theatre is increasingly necessary and important. In this era of easy media, of electronic access round the clock to any movie/ video/ Shakespeare play etc., a sincerely felt rendition like this becomes rare, precious and significant. One has to travel to see it. Pay to see it. One has to sit in real space, as breathing people take breathtaking risks. They play their heart out, and break ours. Like the tempestuous relationship between Katherine and Lucia, the performance enchants, excites and ends, leaving only memories.
"Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang" plays until 29th November. Go see it. It's that good.