Geffrye Museum, 20 July and touring
There are many worse ways to spend a summer’s evening than wandering the lovely gardens of Hoxton’s Geffrye Museum following a band of itinerant performers made up of dancers, actors and glorious musicians; and this restaging of The Rose and the Bulbul (originally created in 2016) allows us to do just that. The processional production, created by a collaborative team of including musician Arieb Azhar, choreographer Kali Chandrasegaram and director Sita Thomas. The piece brings together the titular Tudor Rose, who inspires poets as a symbol of love, and the Persian Bulbul who helps her to mend her own heart again.
The show is billed as family-friendly but is not specifically created for young children; indeed, a post-bedtime performance time in Hoxton meant the entire audience was well past the first flush of youth (performance times are better suited to younger audiences elsewhere on the tour). To my ears, the script (with its deliberate archaisms) is also rather wordy for very young children. Actor Tony Hasnath gives an appealingly physical performance as the Bulbul, hopping around the garden setting and swinging daintily from trees and gateways. As Rose, a winsome Aryana Ramkhalawon suffers from a script stitched largely together from complaints, leaving her with little to do other than emote earnestly for forty minutes until the final celebration provides an opportunity to lighten up.
Among the trio of dancers that animate the series of gardens we walk through on our processional journey, Kathak dancer Manuela Benini is a particular pleasure to watch with her assured and expressive grace. Fluid and flexible contemporary dancer Lola Maury commits herself to the moment so fully that she briefly falls into a lavender bush at one point, which is one of the special joys of outdoor performance (and one swiftly recovered from at that).
Generally the dance material responds well to its lovely outdoor setting, with portions of the performance designed to be viewed in close-up, the audience led by the cast to nooks and crannies of the very interesting historic gardens at the Geffrye. That said, the other rule of outdoor performance is to make sure that all elements of the performance can be seen by audience members standing in unpredictable parts of the performance space; parts of the performance were sometimes attractively glimpsed through parts of the natural scenery and sometimes simply not visible.
A small group of student dancers pops up at various points throughout the show, but are disappointingly not well integrated into the performance as a whole, functioning more as a series of tableaux vivant than part of the story or main choreography. As someone who works regularly with young and community performers myself I feel this is a bit of a missed opportunity; community performances require a lot of rehearsal and ideally include creative contributions from the participants, however young, and there’s not a lot of evidence for either in this production. If there were one thing to really improve about future presentations of this show it would be to either fully commit to working with a community group and bring them meaningfully into the performance, or to let that element go.
With that slight misgiving aside there’s a lot to enjoy about The Rose and the Bulbul, in particular the enchanting music that successfully brings together Tudor themes played by baroque violinist May Robertson and South Asian melodies from composer and contemporary Pakistani folk singer Arieb Azhar. The mesmerizing soundtrack would be a delightful thing to enjoy in a garden on a summer’s evening quite by itself. Touring next to the Horniman Museum and Lauderdale House in Highgate, the Rose and the Bulbul is a pleasant way to spend an hour in some very attractive settings this summer.
Originally published in Pulse Magazine