The Birthday of the Infanta
Oscar Wilde, adapted by Carl Miller
Unicorn Theatre and touring
Oscar Wilde's moral story, The Birthday of the Infanta, is a bitter-sweet tale delivered with charm, and so is this adaptation which keeps closely to the original and uses much of his text directly.
It is the twelfth birthday of the Infanta, the daughter of the King of Spain, and for once, instead of having to play all on her own because there are no other children of equal rank for her to play with, she has been allowed to invite the other children of the court to a party where they are entertained by puppets, a mock bullfight, a tight-rope walker, gypsy dancing, monkeys and a performing bear and among her presents is an ugly little dwarf boy for her amusement.
The princess gives him a flower which he wrongly interprets as a token of her affection and it is only when, searching the halls of the palace in the hope that he can find her, he sees his own reflection in a mirror that he realises that her laughter was not something they shared but that he was the object of it. Wilde presents the coldness and cruelty of the Spanish court in the seventeenth century but it is our own lack of charity and fellow feeling that he is highlighting.
This is a production to which design, lighting, sound, choreography and direction all contribute hugely and that needs to be faultlessly stage-managed for everything must be in exactly the right place and fully operative, whether it be a fan, a match or a pair of castanets, but at its centre is a quite remarkable solo performance by Georgina Roberts. She is an actress who it seems can turn herself into whatever she likes, or at least suggest its spirit. From little lizard to a Grand Inquisitor, a tulip to a tyro toreador, princesses and ugly dwarfs for her are child splay - and indeed, that child's play is an essential part of what she shares with her audience.
Greeting the audience at the beginning in a long black coat, Roberts as storyteller could be the man in the doorway at the rear of Diego Velázquez's famous painting Las Meninas, a picture that helped inspire both Wilde and this production. She asks youngsters in the audience how they feel about birthdays - getting some very curious replies including "painful"! - and what they thought it would be like to be twelve and then goes on to tell the story, changing instantly from one character to another: human, animal even vegetable. Shedding her black gown she is in the white silk and glittering silver thread finery of a court grandee, walking into the metal framework that supports a panniered dress she becomes little Infanta in the painting.
She uses fans to suggest, not only to generate movement, create appendages and costume items; sleight of hand produces a four-hundred year old pearl; a gruesome piece of business has a lad in the audience assisting in removing the innards of the dead queen ready for her embalmment (in the best of stylized taste, of course, but very dramatic) and lets others sniff the scent of the embalming fluid.. Later a bolt of silk and clenched fingers turn her arm into a cobra, a snap of the fingers creates a burst of flame, flowers appear from nowhere.
Handing discs of tissue to the audience they all make their own flower blossoms and the bravest of them learn a little dance and courtesy so that they can present their blossoms as presents to the princess. Later the audience help create a palace garden.
The participation is a natural development as part of the story-telling, in no way forced or overdone but clearly giving enormous pleasure. One moment she is a foot-stamping gypsy dancing a zappeado, the next his rouched sleeve falls to suggest a skirt with roses pinned to it and she is his female partner. No sooner do the gypsies disappear that a banana is flung onto the stage, quickly followed by an antic ape that rampages through the audience.
Once sequence, I thought, stretched out a little too long, but personified flowers have never really been my taste, and bears I believe don't actually roar, but roars help to make things exciting. Ignore such quibbles for this show truly is delightful: literally full of delights in everything except the serious of its message.
The Birthday of the Infanta is touring with two more London dates to come. It is well worth catching and if you have young family or friends take them with you.
At the Unicorn Theatre until 27th March then: The Met, Bury, 30th March; Hat Factory, Luton, 31st March; Mercury Theatre, Colchester, 1st - 2nd April; Darlington Arts Centre, 4th April; Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal, 29th April; Greenwich Theatre, London, 3rd -5th May; New Diorama Theatre, London, 6th - 8th May 2011
Reviewer: Howard Loxton