The Happy Prince review

Theatre
4 out of 5 stars
The Happy Prince Griffin Theatre Little Ones 2019 supplied
Photograph: Robert Catto

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Oscar Wilde's fairytale for children is transformed into an adults-only parable about gender, sexuality and class

On the intimate stage of the SBW Stables Theatre, a sorrowful statue and a flighty swallow fall in love. Even though it costs them dearly, their connection makes the world a better place. And in this take on Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, director Stephen Nicolazzo re-imagines the prince and the swallow as two women. 

The queer love revolution has come to show us a better way – even if the world isn’t ready for it. Even if the world is never ready for it. This is bigger than the world.

In this tremendous, unpretentious work, the statue of the Happy Prince (Janine Watson) weeps when no one is looking. The world is crying: people are hungry, and suffering, and abused and sick. And she, all gold and jewels and a supposed leaden heart, wants to help. No matter the price she must personally pay. But she can’t do anything on her own: she’s a statue bolted in place, removed from the world.

Enter a buzzy, confident swallow (Catherine Davies) – in a bomber jacket and roller skates, the personification of the dyke camp swagger – who finds herself entranced by the statue. She agrees to do what the prince can’t and play messenger, plucking gemstones from the prince’s eyes and sword, giving them to the poor, hungry and ill.

Even as the cold days press closer and the swallow is feeling the bite of winter, she delays her migration to be with the prince, bonded in their acts of service. Their love is one of shared sacrifice and found belonging. 

It’s a love that should never work – it’s a statue and a swallow, a queer connection in a world that upholds old traditions and suffers those who don’t conform  – but it’s a love that transcends possibility. This is high romance with a sharp, knowing edge. And when the statue sheds her golden dress, you might cry from the loveliness, and sadness, of a love that gives everything to the world but still can’t survive within it.

That edge is the secret to the potency of Nicolazzo’s The Happy Prince. It’s the bite of truth, the lilt of irony and loss that’s intertwined with its blooming intimacy that elevates the play into something bigger than the sum of its parts.

Nicolazzo keeps the production small and jewel-like, drenched in Katie Sfetkidis’s divine lights and Daniel Nixon’s wistful music. Eugyeene Teh’s sets are costumes are clever and suggestive, taking Wilde’s gift for metaphor and visualising it with a carefully-chosen pair of jeans here and a shimmering gown there.

Watson and Davies are enchanting and enchanted by each other: Davies is witty and biting and bold; Watson is grave and soulful and strong. When they first regard each other – just for a moment – the world stops spinning.

At the end of the play, he gives lines from Wilde’s 'Panthea' to the Prince. It’s a coda that feels like an offering. This isn’t a happy story, but it’s a gorgeous one, one that has some hope for us. This is a small play, a short play, but it soars.

By: Cassie Tongue

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