THE PRINCE at the Southwark Playhouse
“Over the course of the play, no antagonist is revealed, and little conflict truly arises, resulting in a flat conclusion”
Performance itself lies at the heart of The Prince, Abigail Thorn’s playwriting debut at Southwark Playhouse’s Large Theatre. Characters find themselves stuck inside a multiverse of Shakespearean dramas (Though the action is mostly confined to Henry IV Part I) and at odds with the rigidity of their roles. Sam, played by Joni Ayton-Kent, who is cast as a number of nameless bit characters, is desperately searching for a way out. Mary Malone plays Jen, who finds herself in a similar situation and decides to tag along with Sam. Jen, however, finds tensions within the ways in which the primary characters perform their gender, and begins to poke holes in their constructed identities. In particular, Jen reads Thorn’s Hotspur as a trans woman and Corey Montague Sholay’s Prince Hal as a gay man. Over the course of the play, both characters waffle between conformity to their roles and self-actualization, a broader metaphor for the struggles endured and decisions faced when butting up against a rigid gender binary, especially the construct of masculinity. Though The Prince suffers from a lack of narrative coherence, the metaphor is powerful and at times quite personally affecting.
Thorn and Malone, both in principal roles, turn in strong performances. Malone plays Jen’s fish-out-of-water bewilderment with earnest charm and comedic timing. The funniest moments of the play come from the ways in which other characters play off of hers. Thorn, as Hotspur, carries the show. She peels back her character’s internal tension in careful layers and remains nimble and forceful in her handling of both her own verse and Shakespeare’s. The scenes in which she actively decides to continue in the role of the masculine hero at the expense of her own identity carry tremendous weight. It is unfortunate then, that the structural foundation of the play is unable to support these performances.
The Prince seems to eschew both coherent world-building and narrative signposting, both of which are essential when leading an audience through a multiverse. The moments when Jen is able to break the Shakespearean characters out of their performances are nearly indistinguishable for the moments when they remain stuck. In essence, these breaks happen at random, giving Jen little to learn about the mechanics of the world into which she has been dropped. Sam’s desire to escape should be easily aided by a magical map of sorts, represented by a somewhat unconvincing plastic tetrahedron, but the object only appears all-powerful in Jen’s hands, though no context is given to allow the audience to understand this discrepancy. These two characters are also denied specific or rich inner lives, even an inkling of who they might be outside of their current situation. The multiverse device primarily exists in absentia, as most of Sam and Jen’s haphazard narrative hopping occurs within Henry IV Part I. The play’s only detour into Hamlet arrives without much context and serves only as justification to shoehorn in the “To be, or not to be?” soliloquy, though Thorn delivers it well. Over the course of the play, no antagonist is revealed, and little conflict truly arises, resulting in a flat conclusion.
Martha Godfrey’s lighting design feels similarly uneven. The tubes of LED light that hang at odd angles above the playing space are visually compelling and seem to indicate different corners of the Shakespearean multiverse. But their function remains out of sync with the play throughout, illuminating, changing colours, falling and rising without impetus or textual justification. Rebecca Cartwright’s historical costumes, on the other hand, are a strong point of the play’s design—the ways in which they mutate alongside Jen’s poking and prodding is masterful.
Though it contains joyous and raucous moments, as well as symbolic significance, Thorn’s debut remains unnecessarily messy throughout, wanting for narrative drive and formal consistency.
Reviewed on 19th September 2022
by JC Kerr
Photography by Mark Senior
Previously reviewed at this venue: