The King's Face

Steven Young
Lion and Unicorn Theatre
(2011)

The King's Face production photo

This is a play about England's King Henry V, or rather about Harry of Monmouth, the Prince of Wales, who would become Henry V, the same Prince Hal who features in Shakespeare's two Henry IV plays and his Henry V, the man whose army famously won the Battle of Agincourt. But this is not the bluff Prince Hal of Shakespeare's histories. He is a figure perhaps more close to the real character of history and the title is not the misnomer that it may seem for this is about the face he bore as king, apparently marked by a noticeable scar on his cheek, left by an arrow wound sustained at the Battle Shrewsbury when he was only fifteen or sixteen years old, and it suggests it was the traumas following that which helped turn him into the man who ruled as king.

The Battle of Shrewsbury (1403) was fought against Owen Glendower and his father's former allies, the Percys of Northumberland. Young Henry had already studied at Oxford and was now in command of part of the army. His father won the battle, consolidating his hold on the crown but the Prince was struck in the cheek by an arrow, the head of which lodged in his skull and produced a festering wound. The doctors saw no hope for him; their treatments failed until John Bradmore arrived. The play presents their encounter.

It is a life and death struggle but the drama does not lie in whether Bradmore succeeds in extracting the arrow head and saving Prince Henry's life, for the audience already knows the king lived on. Nevertheless, Bradmore's plan, using a special instrument of his devising, and the skill with which the actual inspection of and operation on the wound are so well presented that it makes fascinating watching. The real conflict and drama of the play comes from the confrontation between the arrogant Prince and the subject, the acquiescent physician, and with the contrast between this, more probably true to life, image of the Prince than that which Shakespeare offers and which theatregoers already know so well.

Shakespeare's Hal may feel that he inherits guilt from his father's usurpation of the throne; this young Prince is weighed down by personal guilt. When his father was sent into exile he was brought up by the deposed King Richard; he loved his uncle but did nothing to save him from his fate. Deep-voiced, heavy-bodied David Trosko does not look like a fifteen-year-old, even allowing for the earlier attainment of maturity expected six centuries ago, but in moments when, feeling he has transgressed, he falls to his knees in mumbled Latin prayers we see the frightened child within the man who would not hesitate to burn a dissenting Lollard.

In this dialogue between Prince and commoner it would not be protocol for Bradmore to question the king about his earlier life. Indeed it would be dramatically unnatural too, for he would surely know it. Steven Young, who directs his own play, therefore resorts to Bradmore telling the story, which makes the earlier part of the play have the air of a lecture with dramatic illustrations until the relationship between them develops to allow more intimacy. Where the audience needs information which Bradmore wants to keep from the Prince, he delivers it as an audience before the king.

Graham Bowe's Bradmore delicately treads the limits of his position, becoming a kindly father figure while still aware of the precariousness of his own position. You can feel him thinking fast about how to handle every moment.

Trosko, despite being at first hampered by a bandage that hides much of his face and obscures even the visible eye, gives a fiery performance. He is particularly good at conveying both the agony of having his wound probed by Bradmore and a stoic control. A slight blurring of speech suggests a limitation to mouth movement to avoid pain but turbulent emotion makes him facially mobile, it might have added extra reality if occasionally we saw the twinges of pain this would induce but otherwise this is a remarkably sustained performance. It is a script that demands committed actors and it gets them.

"The King's Face" runs in repertoire at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 3rd July 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton