It's not perhaps the most tactful of times for the Royal National Theatre to be reviving a notoriously anti-monarchical French play and relocating it in Victorian London, with the calculated consequence that its philanderer villain is the future Edward VII, an ancestor of the present Queen. But The Prince's Play, stirringly staged in the Olivier by Richard Eyre, is much more than just a smack at monarchy. Ken Stott's magnificent central performance as Scotty Scott, music hall comedian and hunchback court jester to the Prince of Wales, ensures that you experience the piece as a tragedy and tragic heroes can never be pure victims.
The Prince's Play is Tony Harrison's trenchant, rhyming-couplet update of Le Roi s'amuse, the banned Victor Hugo drama that was the basis for Rigoletto. The story of an authoritarian ruler who rapes the daughter of his jester is translated here to a 19th century English world of "fillies and fizz", of corrupt royal privilege where, for preferment or pardon, courtiers are prepared to prostitute their own wives and daughters to the Prince's lust. It's a trade-off typified, with a callously neat crudity, in these lines of Scotty's to David Westhead's smiling, shallow HRH: "Speak with Her Majesty. He can get his Garter,/ you get both his wife's. A gentlemanly barter!"
There's a wonderful moment in the opera when Rigoletto is alerted to the fact that the body in the sack is not the corpse he's paid for when he hears the Duke's voice reprieving: "La Donna e Mobile". The Prince's Play uses a similar effect but gives it a further sickening twist in that "the Ladies", the song the Prince is overheard intoning here, is a snottily flattering ditty from Scotty's own "by royal appointment" act. You may wonder whether such comedians existed in this period (or whether people still believed in the power of curses), but the comic's inadvertent complicity in his daughter's downfall comes over with a special keenness.
There's the aggression of self-hatred in Ken Stott's music hall turn and not just because of his rather modest deformity. The way some of his long soliloquies are staged and lit, with Scotty pacing back and forth under a follow spot as he addresses the audience, ironically emphasises that his profession has become his fate, with one form of prostitution leading to another. Stott manages to be at once heart- rending and alienating. If you long to invade the stage and punch the loutish puerile toffs who sniggeringly relish reducing him to tearful humiliation at the gentlemen's club, you feel a more complicated discomfort at his understandable but unhealthily possessive idealisation of his daughter Becky (Arlene Cockburn) in her dolls' house prison.
There's terrible compensatory intensity in Stott's Scotty, both in his paternal behaviour and in the incipient megalomania with which he kicks the daughter's body in the sack, imagining it to be HRH: "I joined the courtiers' queue and stood in line/ to lick your Royal boots, now you lick mine". When he eventually realises the truth, he gives himself up for arrest as though this sick joke mix-up was the clinching stunt of his "act". A moment of tragic self-recognition all the more piercing for presenting itself with the bleak shrug of a blackout sketch.
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