The Young King is an experiential theatrical adventure for children ages 8 and up by Slingsby playing at the New Victory theatre. The production, which won the International Performing Arts for Youth Showcase Victor Award (People’s Choice), aims to introduce and explore themes of poverty and privilege to the unsuspecting youths of the present. Slingsby’s The Young King was also a 2016 Helpmann Award Nominee for Best Presentation for Children, so we were primed for something quite special.
The ticket suggests that you arrive to the theatre up to 30 min before curtain. So, that’s what we did, this mother/daughter team likes to comply. Hazel, my very mature and enthusiastic 6-year-old and I decided to forgo the age recommendations and arrived in the lobby prepared to be engaged and amazed. We were greeted with much pomp, taught a proper bow for greeting The Young King, and handed a card, which assigned us to a group, “Industrious Denizens of the South” (the other groups names are “Gritty Prospectors of the West”, “Gruff Forest-Folk of the East”, and “Rough Fisher-Folk of the North“), and with this we were ushered to the lower lobby and given complimentary refreshments.
For her part, Hazel seemed excited although a little unsure. She is used to a bustling lobby with ushers guiding us to our assigned seats, yet at this moment, she seemed uneasy. Once our group was called, we were led into a dark hallway where actors engaged us directly and got us “ready” to meet the Young King. We stopped by a “costuming” room where we made our own crowns, and some chocolates were served to us on a tray. We wound a circuitous path around the backstage of the lovely and intimate New Victory Theatre where little secrets seemed to surprise us at every turn. When we were finally allowed to our seats, we couldn’t help but be prepped and ready.
The adventure of pre-show preparation helped to prime the audience for what was to come, and funneled the children’s energy into a tiny point of focus, ready to play and fully engage in the show. Throughout the pre-show, the actors reinforced that he was a spoiled Young King and that we should remember our proper bow when we meet him. This constant reinforcement, led me to expect some sort of tantrumous outburst from the Young King (Tim Overton), but it never came (he seemed meek, mischievous, playful, and kind); and though the actors were engaging with the audience the whole time, it didn’t actually start until 3:25, which was probably 10 minutes too long for this kind of audience.
Based on a story by the incomparable Oscar Wilde (An Ideal Husband, The Importance of Being Earnest), and delicately adapted by Nicki Bloom, this play is about a Young King who is enamored by beautiful things and has designed a crown, scepter, and coronation robe harvested from the wealth of the kingdom. On the eve of his coronation, he is visited by three disturbing dreams that illuminate how the gold, rubies, and pearls that he desired for his coronation costume are actually harvested from the unfair treatment of his struggling subjects. This leads to revelation about what is truly valuable to him and he eventually makes the choice to leave the kingdom behind. Bloom manages to utilize much of Wilde’s language, while transforming it into a theatrical retelling elevating the story’s challenging questions about right and wrong, forging your own destiny, and finding the strength and conviction to stand up for yourself, even when you don’t have to.
The dreams as directed by Andy Packer, were beautiful if a smidge scary and macabre. I think this is where my 6-year old became a bit lost. An 8-year old may have an easier time with some of these concepts. At the conclusion of the show, the Young King decides to forgo the wealth and the crown to enter into the beauty of the unknown with the knowledge and the humanity of those who raised him. Hazel was unclear about why he surrendered the wealth and beautiful objects; she found it hard to see the mythology of the dreams as a real glimpse into how the precious gifts came to be. The dreams were scary for Hazel and the concept of dreams as a clarifying vision of truth was a leap she was not emotionally and perhaps psychologically prepared to make. It led to a deeper discussion following the show about wealth, power, and privilege, and I am happy that at the ripe old age of six, The Young King gave us an opportunity to discuss privilege, power, responsibility in a context to which she can relate.
The set was a feast of surprises, designed by Wendy Todd, with a lovely mantle over a massive fireplace that was transformed throughout the play. It contained secret compartments and drawers that held secrets and set pieces used in a thrilling kabuki style. The cast effortlessly turned ordinary objects manipulated by hand into a beautiful feast for our imagination that no modern technology could match.
Adding to the impact of this lovely story was the musical accompaniment written and performed by Quincy Grant. The score performed onstage throughout the show was a welcome companion to the actors. Hazel reacts very strongly to musical cues and immediately covered her ears when any suspenseful or dark music played. She was particularly impressed when Grant turned around front the piano and began to play the clarinet. It was magical for her to see such an array of talents play out on stage.
The small cast of two seasoned actors showed their multitude of talents changing physically and vocally on a dime. There is nothing campy or reductive in the acting; it is mature, thoughtful, and subtle. Jacqy Phillips, who alters herself over and over again, is an absolute chameleon. She and Tim Overton creatively traversed set and character changes adding a gymnastic excitement to the production. Lighting designed by Geoff Cobham was like another actor in the show, illuminating and highlighting important elements of the story. Cobham’s imaginative lighting awed the children and ensured the young audience did not miss one important detail. The actors created silhouettes that danced about the theatre and reminded us of the pure imaginative play that a light and a paper puppet can bring.
There was nothing saccharin or simple about the production of this children’s show. It asked a lot of the audience, it did not spoon-feed or pander to the lowest common denominator. I appreciate that as a parent and theatre lover. I exited the theatre as one does after a yoga class, a bit entranced and fulfilled with the assurance that I had flexed a muscle that I had not engaged in a while.
My one criticism of the experience as a whole is that gifts and giveaways enchant the children, but at some point, it undermines the imaginative nature of the show. We don’t need the card, the snacks and water, the chocolate, and the corn. In the end, it felt a bit insecure and undermined the message of the play. The show was gift enough.
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