It is rare to find a new play that tinkers with form and style while also delving deep into literary analysis, poetic heritage, gender politics, and smart theatricality, unless it is a play by Stoppard or Churchill or a handful of other unashamedly cerebral theatrical creatives. It is even rarer to find such a play premiering at the King’s Head Theatre. But there it is – Nicholas de Jong’s Pricked Out is such a rarity. It’s a brilliant piece of inventive writing, intriguing, startling, and gently silly. Everything you want a new play to be.
A beach. A strangely attired young man is asleep on a beach chair. It could be any Dorset beach. A vain creature hustles by, no interest in his surroundings, just focussed on whatever he is doing. Silence. A sense of heat. Another young man comes onto the beach. He seems lost. He gently awakens the other man, asks for directions. The woken man is disoriented, vague. The newcomer starts to go, but the snoozer stops him.
They awkwardly exchange odd pleasantries. Soon they realise that neither knows who they are, where they are, or when and why they are. With the sounds of the second scene from Twelfth Night booming from nearby, they slowly wake up to who they really are. And what they once meant to each other. Given one of them turns out to be the afterlife version of William Shakespeare, and the other the afterlife version of Richard Barnfield, author of The Affectionate Shepherd and other poems with an homoerotic sensibility, interest is heightened. Words here seem the food of love – play on.
This is Pricked Out, Nicholas de Jongh’s new “magic realist” play, now playing a limited premiere season at the Kings Head Theatre. Under the flat and cumbersome direction of Matthew Gould, the vibrant underlying notions, and the sheer cleverness of the language, never take flight. There is too much emphasis on realism of the Soap Opera kind and not sufficient attention to the magical part of the formulation.
What should be intoxicating, then, ends up merely interesting in performance. Gould has wasted an opportunity. It’s a two star production of a five star play. Nevertheless, the writing, the concepts, and some superb performances, really demand viewing.
Knowledge of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is certainly a bonus in understanding and considering de Jongh’s themes, but it is not necessary. Equally, you don’t need to have read Shakespeare’s sonnets or Barnfield’s poetry. The play tells you what you need to enjoy and reflect.
But for those who do know the texts in question, there are rewards. Pricked Out examines the notion that about 80 percent of Shakespeare’s sonnets were written about his romantic, as opposed to platonic, love for a young, handsome aristocrat. It explores the likely possibility that Shakespeare’s intentions with the sonnets have been suppressed and denied over the centuries as part of the “love that dares not speak its name” philosophy. It also pointedly illuminates the results of that policy of the heterosexual-normative prism.
When we first meet Shakespeare and Barnfield, neither of them know who either of them are. Their existence is a blank. As if they had been explained away into nothingness. It is only by encountering each other, by remembering the spark of sexual interest that once they shared, by going back to the truth between them, the truth about them, that their essences revive.
It is no co-incidence, then, that Twelfth Night has a prominent place in the narrative. That play involves the female part of a set of twins awakening in a strange land, unsure of purpose or future, wrong about the past, and desolate about her lost male twin. She gets involved in a series of gender conundrums as people mistake what she says and how she looks for what she means, what she wants. It is only when the twins are reunited, that all returns to “normal”. The plot dissolves as traditional roles are fulfilled, regardless of whether true love is rewarded.
But might Orsino have preferred Sebastian and Olivia have preferred Viola? That reading is perfectly possible, though rarely even hinted at despite how often Twelfth Night is performed. Here, it comes to the fore. The reawakened Will and Barnfield encounter the immortal spirits of Viola and Olivia, both of whom have had four hundred years of being denied the love they have for each other.
Add to the mix an insufferably vain film director’s muse (with a penchant for queer literary analysis), a gnarled patriarchal Professor of limited, but unassailable, imagination, a lusty, lustful manly object of desire, and the immortal spirit of Malvolio (trapped it seems in his own shrine to his beloved Mistress, Olivia) and you have the makings of a richly rewarding game of analysis, insight and instinct, as Shakespeare’s sonnets and sexuality come under the spotlight.
Alas, Gould’s tiresomely pedestrian staging is at odds with the dazzling premise and the true promise the dialogue offers. There is too much standing around, too much navel gazing. What Pricked Out needs is inventive and creative stage action which illuminates de Jongh’s narrative and lets it soar, rather than directorial dullness that pins it down and flattens its impact. Happily, the acting overcomes much in Gould’s direction – or lack of it.
Sean Delaney is superb as the achingly lonely Barnfield, perfectly encapsulating the sense of being abandoned to historical obscurity, cast out for following his heart. He is an actor who can convey much in stillness. Delaney is constantly in character, one that is awakening over the course of the play. It’s a fine, graceful performance, funny and tragic at once.
Daniel Donskoy revels in his part, the wanted-by-all Harry, the probable subject of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He is terrific, if a trifle more carnal than erotic in his sense of the character. Chris Clynes is a diffident Bard, one who is startled to hear his plays and sonnets are so much discussed centuries after his death. Clynes nails this part of the character well, and the conflict in him about his sexuality and the impact circumstances had upon how his plays were written and originally performed is nicely judged. But the passion and loquacity, so evident in the dialogue, is insufficiently charged with vitality. There is a Will, he just needs a clearer way.
Felicity Jolly and Rebecca Tanwen breathe easy life into the eternally unrequited lovers, Viola and Olive, and as soon as they stake out their territory, the play shifts into a higher gear. Less successful is the odd cross-dressing Mal from Peter Land, a performance that seems more apt for a pantomime than Pricked Out. The essence of Malvolio appears substituted for a Dick Emery sensibility, but even Emery was capable of pathos when in drag. Even though the immortal of his desire was within reach, there was never a moment when Mal longed for her.
With tremendous efficiency, Paul Lavers summons up stuffy intellectual intransigence as Sir Vane, the Professor who will not permit Shakespeare to speak his love’s name. His interpretation was not really as cruel as it might have been; there is no greater cruelty than intellectual disdain. This undercharging of Sir Vane meant that Sebastian Carrington-Howell’s Sebastian did not quite get the quarry he needed when the debate about the sonnets reached its climax.
Carrington-Howell has a great voice and good stage presence, but opted for easy humour over complex character. De Jongh’s Sebastian has a duality which reflects Shakespeare’s – the director of the film of Twelfth Night being filmed on the beach seems to be his Antonio – and his moment, when it comes, is vitally important. Carrington-Howell seems clearly capable of a more intensely felt performance.
With Twelfth Night playing at the National Theatre, this is a timely production. Indeed, one could see that with different directorial vision in play, the Dorfman Theatre would be a perfect home for de Jongh’s play. It delves into the accepted gender-bending in Twelfth Night and dances with the meaning of Shakespeare’s sonnets, all through the broken shards of Barnfield’s poetic mirrors. It forces you to face up to the possibility that some of loves’ labours have indeed been lost. This really is a case of Much Ado About Something.
A brilliantly thoughtful, funny and clever time in the theatre. Well worth seeing.