The Lyric, QPAC
Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince is a very short allegorical story about compassion versus contempt and greed. At the time allegedly written for children, it also carried a potent message for adults, pointing a finger at the inequities of Victorian England, where the rich were filthy rich and the poor starved to death. Likewise, choreographer Graeme Murphy has endeavoured to appeal to both child and adult in his 90-minute ballet about the statue of The Happy Prince and the Little Swallow who helps him give to the poor by stripping his statue of jewels and gold.
This is a visually striking ballet. Set and costume designs by Kim Carpenter, who also worked with Murphy in adapting the story, are almost cartoonish; simply drawn, they have a skilful clarity that captures the essence of the child-like fantasy of the story.
The ballet literally opens with a bang – of cannon fire – denoting the end of World War II. Emerging from the smoke, townsfolk in ragged greys gather in front of a skewed cut-out set piece of jumbled blue buildings. It’s a town suffering the aftermath of war that the ceremonial unveiling of the golden statue of the Happy Prince doesn’t ease.
In translating the story to dance, Murphy (with Carpenter) has embellished and invented with wit and theatricality. A comic showbiz family of swallows is created for the Little Swallow (Marcus Morelli), a headstrong teen in jeans, who is left behind when the family fly to Australia as Ten-Pound Poms. Morelli’s startling first entrance on a skateboard interrupts a Tivoli-like chorus line of lissom dancers in green and yellow – the Reedettes – while the town’s Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress (Luke Marchant and Jarryd Madden), are portrayed as over the top caricatures. Madden, in particular, plays the dominating, ego-driven Mayoress with en travesti flare.
The score by Christopher Gordon is a delight, underscoring both the fantasy and the drama of the story, and ties perfectly with Murphy’s choreography, which in the main is dramatically driven. Although sometimes skating close to the kitsch, Murphy also offers tender moments, such as the expressive duets between the Happy Prince (Adam Bull) and the Little Swallow. Nathan Brook as the struggling Artist, with Drew Hedditch (His Doubt) and Dimity Azoury (His Muse), provided another highpoint, while Benedicte Bemet was touching as the fragile Little Match Girl.
Another layer of magic is provided by the lighting design of Damien Cooper, together with Fabian Astore’s projections.
However, in spite of the highlights, the ballet as a whole is uneven and stretches thin over its 90 minutes. The flying sequences for Morelli, for instance, clumsy in execution (you could clearly see his connection and disconnection from the wire), were probably, apart from his final flight heavenwards, superfluous.
This beautifully poetic scene between Morelli and Bull, where the Little Swallow dies, cold and exhausted in the snow, seems to be the work’s natural conclusion. Instead we are pitched into an upbeat beach scene – the Australian idea of heaven – dominated by a Hokusai-like wave with colourfully-clad beach goers, including the Swallow family. Perhaps in a case of “why not”, Murphy has the Little Swallow make his final exit across the wave on a surfboard.
While this final scene concludes the ballet on a cheerful note, it felt unnecessary, especially as the concept of heaven had already been most beautifully implied in the previous scene.
There’s much to like about Murphy’s The Happy Prince, but it sits uneasily between a sophisticated adult morality ballet about the redemptive power of love, and a fantasy ballet for children, and therefore risks appealing to neither audience.
– DENISE RICHARDSON
'The Happy Prince' moves to Melbourne for a season from August 25 to September 5 and Sydney from November 27 to December 16.