Brighton Fringe 2011
A surgeon battles to save the life of the teenage Prince Henry in a fascinating exploration of the medieval nation-state.
Assessing a moment in history is a job best suited to historians – placing it in a dramatic context can be a minefield for a playwright. Getting the balance right between history and story is of paramount importance and this is chiefly the reason for the success of “The King’s Face”. Steven Young (who has written and directed the piece) has taken an historical footnote and expanded it into a fascinating debate about kingship, divine right and the nation state, framing it with an unlikely friendship which blossoms between prince and commoner.
The young Harry (King Henry V to be) has sustained a serious injury in battle – an arrowhead has passed under his left eye, lodged at the back of his skull and is irretrievable with current medical skill. The prognosis is terminal and threatens the nation’s future security. King Henry IV secures the services of Dr. Jonathan Bradmore, who gradually gains the prince’s confidence and invents an instrument with which he hopes to perform the surgery.
Graham Bowe’s doctor skilfully combines the gentle, rational scientist with the commoner unused to courtly practice – it’s a precise and beautifully understated performance, which fully conveys the wisdom, patience and occasional frustration which comes with age. He is the perfect foil to G. David Trosko’s Henry – all testosterone-filled teen hothead compromised by sexual naivity. His relationship with the doctor is completely believable and allows us a glimpse inside the mind of troubled royalty – the fear of impending death, the impact on the state – and the possibility he might die a virgin. Bradmore is temporarily in loco parentis – “All I want is a friend” says Henry – and the doctor tries his best to explain how to handle a woman. It’s one of many touching and funny moments in a play which has an unexpected and welcome share of laughs amongst the necessary tension.
Trosko’s Henry is a joy, an awkward and ungainly boy who can instantly assume regality even in a nightshirt. Hailing from Dallas, his accent – a gentle English with tinges of Welsh – is flawless. We see his journey through pain (his prosthetic weeping wound is visually compelling) – and debate – take him further towards manhood and the throne. We revel with him in the excitement of battle and empathise with the guilt he feels about the death of his kinsman Richard II – God’s anointed. The fiery exchanges between him and Bradbury over the state of the nation make for a nice contrast with the gentle scenes of healing.
Young’s script is detailed and well-observed and overall his orchestration of the piece – both writing and direction – is excellent. My two (very) minor quibbles are a slight flabbiness in the second half where the piece momentarily loses impetus and the staging of one part of the surgery, where in the intimate space of Iambic Arts, the eye is not completely deceived.
That apart, the story, the direction and the actor’s accomplished performances are together totally engaging and make for an absorbing and satisfying evening, with plenty to muse on. Real, living history.