As the audience is ushered into their seats, there is a certain haste surrounding Trestle’s latest production, The Birthday of the Infanta. Based on a short fairy tale by Oscar Wilde, where the daughter of the King of Spain (the Infanta) is allowed a party on her twelfth birthday, Trestle has brought together a blend of music, puppetry and dance in a one-woman extravaganza of a show. It is rich and dynamic, bringing a depth of Spanish flavour to a busy production for young audiences.
Reflecting on The Birthday of the Infanta now, I am inclined to highlight each of the devices used that draw the audience into this rich piece, but there is niggling issue that I have to address first. The production is excellent, it brings about a real exploration of Wilde’s story, combining dance and songs with the storytelling delightfully, but it deserves more than just Georgina Roberts as its sole method of delivery. This is no reflection upon Roberts as a performer, because it is clear that as she morphs between characters, using a vast array of voices and physicalities that indeed she is versatile and mesmerising. Yet Emily Gray’s direction demands Roberts to be whirling around the staging, flickering between characters and moments, operating puppets, interacting with the audience – whilst holding the whole performance together. If The Birthday of the Infanta is rich in form and presentation, it is let down through Gray’s decision to rest the performance on the shoulders of a single performer (or perhaps it is just that these hard times mean that Trestle could not stretch to two performers?).
Whilst my issues with the production lie in the demands placed upon Roberts as a performer, it is clear that Gray has formed a piece that excels as storytelling for younger audiences. From the moment that the story begins to unravel and Roberts introduces the Spanish characters through numerous handheld fans that she places on her body to represent different garments, The Birthday of the Infanta comes to life. The story is spun that upon the Infanta’s twelfth birthday she is allowed to invite other children to her party and celebrations. There is lots of audience participation that sees us making flowers to present to her, or acting as a fanfare of trumpets upon her arrival. It is playfully engaging and takes us beyond just simple storytelling.
There are numerous devices used within Gray’s direction that sees the world of the Infanta brought to life. With an exceptional use of music composed by Laurence Kaye and numerous dances choreographed by Ramon Baeza of Increpacion Danza, there really is not a moment that the story’s imagination or adventure dwindle. As the various guest assemble and the entertainment for the Infanta’s birthday is presented, Roberts turns from a performing monkey to a tight-rope performer to the grotesque and saddened second central character – that of the charcoal burning boy.
With Trestle’s trademark of masks, the boy is shown by a mask hanging halfway down Roberts body, making a stunted and malformed creature. Roberts brilliantly dances and manipulates her body and voice to show this grotesque being, a form of mockery and entertainment for the Infanta, that harks back to the days of freak shows at the circus. As Roberts becomes the Infanta and laughs infectiously over this entertainment, the story of The Birthday of the Infanta suddenly takes a darker tone in the torment and pain this unfortunate boy suffers. He thinks that the Infanta is in love with him, and goes through a garden full of flowers in search of her again. On seeing his reflection in a mirror, he is repulsed by his own appearance and dies stricken with grief and a broken heart. Saddened by the loss of the boy, the Infanta declares “for the future, let those who come to play with me have no hearts” – it is poignant moment within the production and captures Wilde’s darker, tragic story perfectly.
Throughout The Birthday of the Infanta there is a real chaotic energy that Roberts brings to Trestle’s new piece. This energy is translated into the constant changing devices used within Grey’s direction, that offers ample engagement for any audience member – old or young. Yet I worry that Grey’s decision to use what feels like every weapon in her directional arson means the real tender and refined moments of the piece are overshadowed. It is a piece that explores the possibility of performance, and does so thunderously, showing that Trestle id still a company renowned for its inventive and imaginative work.
The Birthday of the Infanta is currently on tour. For more information, see the Trestle website for dates and locations.