REVIEW: The Happy Prince
The Happy Prince
Reviewed by Nicholas Brady
Stephen Nicolazzo’s reimagining of Oscar Wilde’s tale of love between a golden statue and a curious swallow retains its classical routes whilst attempting to transport audiences into a lonely dreamscape.
The Happy Prince can be gripping; its characters, the Swallow and the Prince, maintain an indomitable grip over our eyes and ears for most of the play’s 50-minute run time. This grip however wavers as the play attempts to ‘explore’ ideas of wealth inequality. This theme is only ever explored in the form of sporadic exposition delivered by the Prince and only seems to break up the development of an enchantingly complex relationship between the Prince and the Swallow.
This relationship is the play's true highlight. The Prince - played with an elegance and weight by Janine Watson - slowly falls in love with Catherine Davies’ Swallow. A statue cursed to do witness the struggles of humans below, the prince stands alone. That is, until the Swallow glides in on roller skates filling the lonely and hostile space with warmth and energy.
Immediately their connection is profound. The swallow strives to fulfil the wishes of the Prince, delivering jewels to those for years she had watched struggle from her place above the city. Much of their emotional journey is conveyed through their physicality; the stage is bare save for scattered golden glitter. Both the audience and the Prince relish how the Swallow traverses the stage, challenges the Prince’s stoicism and defeat as their love blossoms.
Despite its romantic nature, the play shocks with visceral imagery. The play naturalises the naked body, expressive of vulnerability rather than sexualising it whilst curating a clear character contrast through costuming - although the plastic sword intended to be a golden one stands out as a particularly strange knock against otherwise flawless costume and set design.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Nicolazzo’s play is the Lighting Design by Katie Sfetkidis; the stage is dominated by a lone spotlight, cast down upon and around the Prince. It catches her golden dress which twinkles hypnotically but further emphasises her loneliness. From this spotlight a pronounced and elongated shadow is drawn upon the stages’ rear wall and it is here the play’s most beautiful moments are cast at their most profound. As the two performers draw closer - physically and emotionally - I would catch my eyes drifting to the wall behind them not out of boredom but in wonder as these poignant moments were framed in their shadows. Like a shadow play, the work became expressionistic; a still frame of a moment of genuine love. Beyond this spotlight and its shadows lies a murky blue haze, sealing the Prince off from the rest of the stage whilst the Swallow roams free. Sfetkidis’s design commands our focus upon the stage in a way that should make all Lighting Designers take close note.
However not every moment was captured with the same power and emotional resonance. Nicolazzo draws from another piece of Wilde’s collection: Panthea, a poem which has a passage cited in a crucial moment. But the delivery was monotonous, given the occurrences upon the stage preluding the reading, the weight and emphasis behind it felt lacklustre; anti-climactic.
For fault of its half-hearted themes, The Happy Prince does not manage to bring Oscar Wilde into the 21st century seamlessly. But what is witnessed of the love between the Prince and the Swallow is some of the most powerful work on a stage this year. Beautiful lighting and minimalist set design draw us closer to these players as they command our attention in nearly every moment. The Happy Prince makes the most of its single hour of run time, and despite sacrificing much of its political power it delivers an intimate and powerful tale of romance.
Photography: Robert Catto
THE HAPPY PRINCE
Griffin Theatre Company
29 June - 6 July