The Prince at Southwark Playhouse – review
The new play is twists Shakespearean tropes in new ways
Imagine being stuck in Shakespeare ("the plays, not the man"). The comedies? Sure! Who wouldn't love a bit of frolicking about the woods with fairies? Titus Andronicus may be a bit hairy, but watching the drama unfold could be fun. The histories are perhaps a little trickier, but Abigail Thorn's debut play sophisticatedly explores gender and identity within Henry IV part 1 along with all the hilarity of finding yourself in the Shakespeare multiverse.
And comedy there is. When Jen and Sam (Mary Malone and Joni Ayton-Kent, respectively) face this specific situation, their reactions to the iambic pentameter ("Mood") and heightened language is what initially draws the audience into the story – we are outsiders, too. Malone, in particular, is a master of facial expressions and offhand comments as she navigates her way through the play, deciding not to let it simply run its course to get back out into the real world, but to change the characters' fates and get them out of constantly performing Shakespeare on repeat, too. One of the biggest laughs of the night comes from her poignant observation that cis people are fine with pronouns switching when it's "thou" and "you".
It's an interesting choice for Henry IV to be the basis of an exploration of gender and sexuality - plays such as Twelfth Night or As You Like It spring to mind as top contenders but are perhaps too on the nose. In this adaptation, Hotspur is exploring that they may be trans whilst Hal explores his sexuality, and Katherine questions her role in society as a woman. Thorn's writing cleverly weaves the Bard's text with modern dialogue and original verse - though the play undoubtedly shines the most when it is unpicking Shakespearean conventions.
Set on a black and white chess board / dance floor with beams of white light hung above (design by Lulu Tam, with lighting by Martha Godfrey), Rodent's compositions accompany the piece perfectly – you don't necessarily notice it while it's there, but you feel the silence when it's gone. Playing alongside Thorn, Malone and Ayton-Kent are a strong ensemble. Following his star performance in Bacon at the Finborough earlier this year, Corey Montague-Sholay makes his mark as young Prince Hal, while Tianna Arnold as Katherine magically transforms their speech between restrained Shakesperean and a 21st century woman who will voice her opinions (with costume edits to match by Tam and Rebecca Cartwright).
Perhaps if you're looking for an over-explanation of the how and why, then the ending may not be satisfying enough, but The Prince is an entertaining and smart take on a history play. Not merely an adaptation, it is a bold, new and thought-provoking piece of writing.