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The King's Face
Published on Thursday, 26 May 2011

4 stars

Iambic Arts Theatre (venue website)
22-23, 28-29 May, 3:00pm-4:40pm; 24-27 May, 8:00pm-9:40pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Parental Guidance. Under-17's must be accompanied by an adult.
 Warning: Contains strong language.
 World Premiere.

A prince lies dying - not a swift death in battle, but the creeping doom of gangrene, spreading from an arrowhead embedded in his skull. One man, perhaps, can repair his shattered face; can save his life, and change the course of history. In this intimate two-hander, loosely based in fact, the king is the future Henry V... and surgeon John Bradmore, his only hope, becomes both his saviour and his friend.

If it's all about the prince's wounded face, then the wound itself is cleverly and elegantly portrayed.  For the opening scenes, carefully-constructed dialogue and movements avoid revealing his profile - and I wondered, at first, if they’d simply wimped out of showing the injury at all.  But no, it’s much smarter than that. The final, unheraled revelation is quietly horrific, yet we come to accept his bloodied scar as surely as we learn what runs through the teenage prince's troubled mind.

Despite the lack of explicit gore, there’s much in the surgeon’s agonizing treatment of Harry which is deeply uncomfortable to watch. To my surprise, though, this is an outright-entertaining play, woven through with latent wit and embellished by overt comedy scenes.  As a whole, the contrasts worked – though the prince’s naïve bemusement on the mechanics of sex came close to stretching the elastic too far – and it’s a clever mirror of the unspoken premise, that the mood swings caused by his youthful injury defined the older man's reign as Henry V.

As the young prince, G David Trosko proves more than a match for what’s surely a difficult role.  He flips from impish expressiveness to masterful focus, conjuring the unenviable double life of a boy who will be king; and Graham Bowe as Bradmore makes an eloquent foil, lending thoughtful gravitas as character and narrator alike.  At a high level Steven Young's script is a little formulaic, building to a relationship crisis before the inevitable affirming resolution, but the wording feels perky and fresh right the way through.  In one magnificently eloquent, utterly compelling monologue, the prince evokes the thrill and terror of mediaeval battle - a well-mannered tournament with a deadly conclusion, and a contradiction which, at long last, I can viscerally understand.

At times, though, the history lesson was heavy-handed. The desire to educate occasionally took over, detracting from the need to move forward with the characters who are actually on the stage.  I struggled to keep hold of the barons, uncles and other pretenders who threatened young Harry's throne; and that was a problem, since a few of them proved crucial at the end.  What's more, the opening felt incongruously rushed - would the arrogant solider really be so quick to connect with a cerebral commoner? - so maybe, some of the time spent on the detail of kingly feuding would be better used elsewhere.

All in all though, The King's Face is well-conceived, well-written and supremely well-acted, with genuine insights into the half-cursed life of Shakespeare's most famous monarch. And it’s great to see a solidly traditional play find a little room for gentle innovation - the cabaret-style seating, and the way the injured prince remains on his bed in full view throughout the interval. With an intriguing topic and a deft execution, it's a play I'll be thinking about for a good while to come.

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