Writer: Mark Twain
Adapter & Director: Theresa Heskins
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
The usual team are at the helm of The New Vic’s Christmas show again. Year upon year they set the bar high with productions that see families using it as their festive treat. This year’s choice of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper may be unusual in terms of festive pertinence but it is another example of this theatre’s tight creative team at their best once again.
It must be with great pleasure to be able to cast genuine identical twins in productions that rely on misidentification. Danielle Bird (Prince Edward) and Nichole Bird (Tom Canty – the Pauper) need not even attempt to suspend disbelief as seeing them onstage together is like looking into a mirror. Role swapping as a dramatic concept is nothing new of course and has been used on TV, film and theatre in many guises. It opens up a door to the other, the seemingly exotic, as the ‘alien’ explores virgin territory. This story arc is perfect for young audiences – clear and exciting but with the potential to be mined deeper. Theresa Heskins’ adaptation brings a whole feast of themes to the table, all served up with swan and a boar’s head in terrific Tudor style.
When the haughty and brattish Prince Edward (Danielle Bird) and gutter boy Tom (Nichole Bird) meet they hatch a plan, just for one day, to swap guises and see what life is like on the other side of the palace gates. Initially the wonders of the other world delight: the excitement and characters of the street and a banquet so enormous the hungry Tom eats so much he is sick. But very soon the novelty wears away and their ill-conceived plan backfires as, of course, the Prince is now denied entry back into the palace by the Yeomen of the Guard and Tom is declared insane by King Henry VIII as he desperately tries to convince the royal household he is actually a boy from the street. Trapped in unfamiliar worlds it is a difficult journey to get back to where they ‘belong’.
The theatre is transformed into a Globe-like locale thanks to Laura Willstead’s set. A red and white Tudor rose representing Henry VIII’s split household adorns the wooden centre-stage. But the wrap-around of miniature Tudor houses representing the streets of London is breath-taking. Heskins firmly sets the action 500 years ago with Lis Evans’ strictly authentic costume design and James Atherton’s choice of instruments used by the actor-musicians. Strings and woodwind live score most of the action in Atherton’s traditional composition and musical direction seemingly inspired by Henry VIII’s own songbook.
Heskins’ adaptation is fun, silly and has more than a little Horrible Histories’ Terrible Tudors delight in it. There is lots of fun listing the countless courses of a traditional royal Tudor banquet as well as the myriad of courtiers suddenly at the imposter’s disposal including the wonderfully smug First Lord of Everything brilliantly played by Kieran Buckeridge. We learn about the job of a whipping boy, the cruel and unusual punishments dealt out to criminals and an obsession with witchcraft. And within the royal household we are introduced to Prince Edward’s big step-sisters Elizabeth I (Jasmin Hinds) and Mary Tudor (Gareth Cassidy). As the future ‘Bloody Mary’ Cassidy has enormous fun literally jumping in and out of a dour, scene-stealing black dress set on casters that appears to glide around the stage as her obsession with witchcraft grows ad infinitum: a terrifying sight but matched with such silliness that Cassidy becomes almost an ugly sister figure from Cinderella. Plus, the dress becomes the talking point of the interval.
Heskins’ productions always include her trademark theatrical ingenuity encouraged by the theatre in the round. With no hiding places actors often slip in and out of character and in and out of costume onstage. Philip D’Orleans’ fight direction is complemented with live Foley from another actor. Actors whizz up and down the aisles and race around the auditorium, often achieving several laps, in chase sequences – all a thrilling experience for young audiences. And sneakily Heskins smuggles in many Shakespearean references. Well, for a play set in an age when Shakespeare was a contemporary to the main characters and for a plot that relies on misidentification it would be criminal not to.
Heskins litters the script with quotes but it is Mary Tudor’s departing line (“I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you”), borrowed from Malvolio in Twelfth Night, which becomes a sinister portent of her future reign as monarch. Integral to the plot, again with a Shakespearean twist, is the play within a play as a band of players prepare for the coronation of Prince Edward. However, this is where the production becomes a little muddled. Heskins sets up a framing device at the beginning of the production as we are initially introduced to these players. Occasionally, we catch a glimpse of them ‘playing’ out The Prince and the Pauper. So when we are introduced to them again in the second half of the play there is definite room for confusion for a younger audience as they play a play within a play within a play – technically … I think.
Themes of mercy, kindness, the voice of the child, education and humility underpin Heskins fantastic production. But, like the Prince and the pauper she can disguise all these undercurrents under silliness, slapstick, caricature and gripping storytelling. At a time when electioneering and political campaigning are headline news on the run up to Christmas perhaps there is a message for politicians to swap places for a little while. As we learn in this play privilege and poverty can only be understood through experience and not observation and perspective is only relative to where you have always been stood.
Runs until 25th January 2020 | Image: Andrew Billington