The stage for The Prince has a simple black and white chequered floor and is completely in the round. There are two large boxes on the performance area and that’s it. No more, no less. I love this simplicity by set designer Lulu Tam. Whether it represents a chess board and the intricate moves individuals are forced to play in real life, or just the feigned simplicity of identity that is inadequate for so many, it works. Actors enter and exit from all corners and often sit at the side, silently observing.
Written and starring Abigail Thorn, The Prince is a sparkling and nuanced interrogation of identity and gender. Using Shakespeare as her starting point, the first half re-presents the plot of Henry IV Part I and the second half Hamlet. Both have anti-heroes at their core, and Prince Hal, Hotspur and Hamlet are all individuals that face identity crises when compared to more traditional views of masculinity.
Using the structure of a play within a play, Sam (Joni Ayton-Kent) and Jen (Mary Malone) are contemporary characters stuck within a constantly rotating Shakespearean multiverse, with a myriad of the Bard’s plays ongoing around them. They have the occasional chance to get out but the timing to do so is tricky. These transitions are sometimes clunky but they work. After the first 15 minutes or so of traditional masculine Shakespearean fighting and speech, Jen erupts onto the scene declaring, “Well, I have no idea what any of that meant!” to a roar of laughter, and thus the relationship with the audience is cemented; a significant number accord with her.
Shakespeare himself wrote masterfully on identify subterfuge and the concept that we are often not who we appear to be. Thorn has developed this for today’s society. The assimilation of the dual themes of gender and identity into the plot is complete and manages to normalise difference whilst questioning traditional masculine hierarchies.
The dexterity of dialogue and fluidity of plot structure which develops the narrative remind me of Tom Stoppard. And that’s a huge compliment. Added to that, the vivid and clever interrogation of identity and gender against social expectations makes it doubly impressive. In the accompanying material, Thorn explains that although there is some speech from Shakespeare, the majority of the verse is original. Well, that only makes her thrice impressive as it would appear she is an accomplished Shakespearean scholar to boot.
At the conclusion of the play, it turns out that all of the characters were affected by the Shakespearean infinity, and again, without overdoing the point, it does rather remind all of us all to be careful of assumption. The crowd, once freed, head off together, creating their own support network, rejecting traditional familial arrangements.
All performances are strong, with the actors comfortable in such an intimate space, although it is Thorn (again!) who is impressive as a female Hotspur.
This play is funny. It’s clever. It delivers on all levels. Yes, there are bits that I didn’t necessarily follow, which made me want to study the text, and actually the opening section is a touch too long: but there is so much to admire in this piece. Once again, Shakespeare has been proved relevant 420 years after publication.
Written by: Abigail Thorn
Directed by: Natasha Rickman
Produced by: Simon Paris & George Warren
Set Designer: Lulu Tam
Presented by Metal Rabbit Productions
The Prince plays at Southwark Playhouse until 08 October. Further information and bookings can be found here.