Southwark Playhouse, London – until 8 October 2022
Abigail Thorn’s new play The Prince takes inspiration from Shakespeare and time travel to deliver a funny and deeply original take on gender norms and expectations.
In the programme she explains her idea of writing it came from her own trans experience, and the current rise in gender discrimination and miscommunication.
The talented cast of Tianna Arnold, Joni Ayton Kent, Mary Malone, Ché Walker, Corey Montague Sholay (Prince Hal), Richard Rees (Worcester), and Tyler Luke Cunningham (Douglas) join Thorn herself (Hotspur/Hamlet).
Jen (Malone) and Sam (Ayton Kent) are trapped in a world of constant Shakespearean verse, where there is a play and a pun on every corner.
How they got there is never explored, but if you accept Doctor Who’s Tardis, perhaps you can swallow this basic premise which puts these two into the plot of Henry IV part I.
Under a sky of fluorescent lights, the characters of the play act out their battles and scenes until Jen accidentally intervenes and then feels duty bound to interfere with a life Hotspur maintains is that of “a happy man” with power, dominance, and dutiful wife.
That wife, Kate (Arnold) is the epitome of feminine duty, yet does not recognise the reality of her situation and husband. In Hotspur she desires a manly man, so that is what she sees.
In a world which constantly fights against trans rights, Thorn’s play is a timely reminder that what we subconsciously think of as masculine or feminine is not necessarily ‘right’.
There are delicious jokes about pronouns, transitions, and more, and moments where characters break the fourth wall and accost audience members. Malone’s Jen is the mistress of the laconic comic foil, while Ayton Kent’s physical flailing is hilarious to watch.
In casting Walker as both King and Northumberland adds a different dimension to Henry IV and the battle between the two sons – this isn’t new, as the RSC’s As You Like It, one actor played Dukes Frederick and Senior – but it plays, again, with expectations.
Shakespeare, of course, was originally performed by all-male casts, and has since been open to gender-swapping in casting as much as characterisations. An all-female Henry IV ran at the Donmar not that long ago.
Director Natasha Rickman keeps all the action together while retaining a nod to the Shakespeare originals; movement from EM Williams is expertly mixed with sound design from Rodent and lighting by Martha Godfrey.
Two costume designers are involved in The Prince, with Lulu Tam handling the present day and Rebecca Cartwright the historical scenes. Both have created exceptional pieces which nod back and forth through time – Hamlet‘s ‘inky cloak’ is a definite highlight.
The Prince is about boxes, identities, and language. When Jen throws out a “babe” or a profanity, it jars with the iambic pentameter as much as seeing a glimpse of Hotspur’s underwear under the trappings of war, or a key speech being reduced to gobbledegook.
With many of the cast identifying as trans or gender non-conforming, this is a breath of fresh air which may not be perfect but is certainly inclusive, unapologetically queer, and extremely entertaining.
You can watch The Prince until 8 October at Southwark Playhouse: purchase your tickets here.
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