So gang, it’s been a hard time for the trans community lately right? If you – like me – are trans, you’ll be fully aware of the constant stream of people talking about us and over us in legacy media, mostly without giving us the right to reply or allowing us to communicate our own stories and reality. Enter Abigail Thorn, creator of the successful Philosophy Tube YouTube channel, with The Prince at the Southwark Playhouse.
Thorn has built up a solid subscriber base with her trademark wit and easy-to-grok way of discussing and explaining some pretty obtuse philosophical concepts, and since coming out publicly in her 2021 video ‘Identity – A Trans Coming Out Story’ she has been rather thrust into the limelight as one of the UK’s most prominent trans women. And, dear reader, I am so glad she has for we need voices like hers right now.
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Not that The Prince is a dreary recounting of the hardships of being trans in Britain in 2022; far from it. While transness is obviously at the heart of the show, there is enough humour, excitement, pathos, and universality to it that anyone with an open mind should find plenty to thrill and delight them within.
But what is The Prince about? It’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer, as Thorn refuses to allow it to be easily pigeonholed, building a complex narrative with an almost cinematic scope which does wonders with its world building, considering the minimalist set design which manages to conjure battlefields, beaches, and boudoirs from a couple of boxes and some rather excellent lighting design from Martha Godfrey. If I had to describe that narrative in a sentence (which I suppose I do), I would go with “Reluctant intertextual dimension-hopping trans women save/destroy the world with the twin powers of Diet Coke and self acceptance.” I did tell you it was complex!
The women in question are Sam (Joni Ayton-Kent) and Jen (Mary Malone, with a stunning, hilarious and multi-faceted breakout performance), who for reasons unknown are trapped in an endlessly repeating multiverse of the works of Shakespeare, with the characters unaware of the scripted nature of their existence or of any possibilities outside of those roles.
The play (The Prince I mean, although the whole production is plays within plays all the way down) centres on Henry IV Part I, and Harry Hotspur (Thorn herself) in particular, who after an encounter with Jen begins to question these limitations for the first time, with repercussions for both the Shakeyverse and our heroines because of it.
Thorn clearly has an ear for Shakespearean dialogue, and as someone with only an average knowledge of the bard myself I was frequently unable to tell what was original dialogue and what was written hundreds of years ago. And can she ACT! She has a commanding presence on stage, partly due to the initial all-action nature of the swashbuckling Hotspur, but frequently impressing with her subtler and more tender talents as the story progresses.
The show is also shot through with humour, undercutting but never diminishing the gut punches and pangs of recognition that it delivers (pangs of recognition for me; cis mileage may vary but there is plenty in there for anyone who has ever felt they’re not able to live up to the image of themselves held in the eyes of others). It has the best joke about pronouns I’ve heard for a while, and a few cheeky digs at establishment figures from Andrew Lloyd-Webber to the monarchy itself.
You might have detected that I am somewhat of a fan, and this is true. So in the interests of balance I am forcing myself to be critical here, and I will say that the second act felt slightly rushed compared to the more leisurely and playful first, and one of the actors (who was otherwise fantastic and therefore shall remain nameless) lacked the vocal projection of their cast mates, leading me to struggle to parse their dialogue sometimes. But these are minor flaws in an an otherwise tremendous debut production from a writer and performer who will hopefully grace us with more works down the line.
So yeah, go and see The Prince. If you’re trans you will laugh and cry and gasp, and if you’re not you will probably do the same. And if you’re a heartless stone creature you will probably be carried along by the breakneck pace and visceral clanging sword fights.
A depressing coda to this review that I would be remiss not to mention is the security situation facing Thorn and indeed any public facing LGBTQ+ performers currently. I would have dearly loved to let her know in person how much seeing her work has meant to me, but she and the cast were recommended to not meet theatregoers afterwards in the bar or outside due to the hostility directed at her by the far right and other enablers of hateful ideologies. So while The Prince feels like a victory for us, the war is far from over.
To be, or not to be.
The Prince is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 8th October.