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The Happy Prince

"His spirit was in the room"

"A bit of wine; a fear of failure." Janine Watson reveals what went into the adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince.

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Into the Wilde: Invoking the Spirit of a Genius

Date: 14 Jun 2019

The first day I ever worked with Cat Davies she taught me the fine art of ‘packing’ the crotch of my pants for my role as the male lead Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons.

Cat identifies as queer and has an incredible Drag King persona she has performed in the past. She is well practised in packing and I was not. The more Cat and I rehearsed together, the more I admired and learned from her gender fluidity. The liberation it gave the work. And it rubbed off.

If you saw Dangerous Liaisons, you’d think that was a pun.

Stephen Nicolazzo cast me in that role, that production, and it utterly unlocked me as an actor. He’d cast me on trust. Or maybe he’d seen something in me I couldn’t see in myself because Stephen believes there’s no one authentic self; every iteration of you is as true as any other.

I found that revelatory. Maybe he saw the multiplicity of me. Again, liberating.

If you only judge people on one superficial aspect of their lives – the gender of who they’re with, the suburb they live in, the job that they do, the clothes they wear – you’ll box a person’s identity into a very confined space.

This production with these two, and our collaboration on Stephen’s very queer silent-movie-on-stage version of Dracula, awakened me to the limitlessness of my own self. Wilde says “Art is the most intense mode of individualism the world has ever known.”

Then came Stephen’s proposal that Cat and I collaborate with him to reimagine Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince.

This would be our adult, queer abduction of his children’s story. The tale of a golden statue who calls upon a hapless swallow trying to migrate out of the London winter. From their position above the city the prince can see all human suffering and wants the swallow to help change it. The risk is huge.

The Happy Prince is like the Tiny House of Little Ones shows.

It will look like it took 45 minutes to build. It actually needed deep, deep foundations dug in with our hands and feet and knees and faces and brains and trust and history. Otherwise it would be a flimsy, temporary construction that would topple in the slightest breeze.

We didn’t know it, but our digging for this show started on Dangerous Liaisons, cut through rock and silt on Dracula, and reached its back breaking zenith in our first three weeks of creative development.

A good day of work would end with laughter and someone yelling ‘He’d bloody love it!’ Usually Stephen Nicolazzo. He’d be talking about Wilde.

A successful rehearsal choice was measured by the reasonably inexact barometer of Wilde’s imagined response. Dan Nixon, our sagely sound designer whose own gentle silence is one of his great creations, was composing with us from day one, for every offer. Who knows the hours of score he has stored on his laptop?

But before the good days were the bad days.

A bad day would end with a strange kind of disappointment and shame – genuine embarrassment, like we wanted to hide from Wilde’s gaze, escape the rehearsal room before he’d had a chance to notice.

So we would flee. Stephen, Cat and I. Across town from rehearsals in Richmond into the safety of the exposed brick courtyard of Kelvin’s Bar in Westgarth, Melbourne. It was a cold November. The wine that passed between us worked medicinally to temper the terror of failure and move us toward revelation.

Sometimes Dan would join us. Laugh at us. At our earnestness. Or, as Wilde would put it, Ernestness. Ha! See? It remains – a constant and unrelenting desire to impress a long dead artist with how much we ‘know’ him. ‘I know what he’d say now if he was alive’, ‘if he saw this he’d shit himself’, ‘he’d think this was hilarious’.

Why we thought we had any authority over of those assumptions was a mystery at the time. Returning to this work, though, two and a half years later, the benefit of hindsight is powerful.

He was with us.

I have absolutely no doubt. His spirit was in the room. Let me explain.

Firstly, by all accounts he liked wine. Snap. The lubricant of wine, when used wisely in moderation, provides emotional and creative spaciousness to be brave (read: stupid and ridiculous) and from that uncensored place in the evenings we began to solve problems.

Then, when we had enough Dutch courage, we invited Oscar to our parties. By asking ‘what would you want now?’, ‘how would you say this now?’ And eventually he must’ve accepted the invitation because we started to get clarity on how to move forward. We’d felt an intense pressure to recreate exactly what existed on the page of his story.

For the first few weeks I was wearing plastic armour, it was very serious and there was a lot of direct address prose. Little Ones’ glorious costume and set designer, Eugyeene Teh, offered continual adjustments and solutions. The story, our version of it, kept teasing us. But Wilde tells us “success is a science; if you have the conditions you get the result.”

At Kelvin’s Bar we uncovered some ingredients to aid our experiment – irreverence, a sense of humour, laughter, tears, a desire to bare our souls, and an intimate understanding of everyone’s preferred style of porn.

That last one may not have been integral to the creation of the work but it was an honest and uncensored feature of discussion. Or so we thought at our Little Ones Christmas Party for three that we held at Kelvin’s.

Other company members were invited. We just forgot to tell them.

The ingredients Stephen distilled into his vision and writing from those passionate and vibrant evenings together were the same things that made us adore Wilde’s stories and words, because of course they were.

The conditions were right: artists; a bit of wine; a fear of failure; terror of being judged for being different; love for each other and for creation.

A live culture breeding results. A science.

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From there we could begin to tell the same truth he was telling, without needing to create an exact replica of his world. Our Happy Prince and Swallow would be truer to the source material if we created the conditions for interpretation rather than imitation.

We had 10 days of rehearsals after that. We still went through at least 4 costume drafts, our brilliant lighting designer Katie Sfetkidis changed her whole plot at the eleventh hour, and we had no previews.

Through fate or divine intervention we have no previews for this season either. And only four days of rehearsals. Anything could happen. But I return to our spiritual benefactor who says “spontaneity is a meticulously prepared art.”

So we will be prepared to be spontaneous. There’s a Wilde quote for every occasion. And so he is forever invoked.

I’ll leave you with one tantalising vignette Stephen cut from our production three days before opening but is definitely something you’ll wish you’d seen: Cat’s character, The Swallow, being introduced to the story by an improvisational dance on roller skates to Pour Some Sugar On Me by Def Leppard.

Oscar Wilde would’ve have frothed over that!

Oh, he would’ve loved it!

I know.

The Happy Prince plays at Griffin Theatre, Kings Cross, June 27-July 6

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