The Young Pretender
By EV Crowe
Directed by Marg Nagle
Ryan Bown: Charles III
Shaun McEachern: Donald
Madelaine Osborn: Flora
Reviewed by Nathan Lentern
Bonnie Prince Charles seeks to restore the House of Stuart to the throne of Great Britain. Proud, idealistic and cavalier he takes extraordinary risks without hesitation, so sure in his own convictions that he never pauses to consider that defeat is a genuine option. But when defeat comes he must confront the consequences of his brashness and reflect on the path to his fateful decisions.
The Young Pretender, written by EV Crowe is an intriguing character examination of a reckless and charismatic rogue. It involves a fair bit of assumed knowledge so newcomers to Scottish history might find themselves fumbling around for an understanding of the broader political context that lay before them but even they would be intrigued and beguiled by the fascinating character around which this play revolves.
The show is broken into three acts; each one being used to illustrate a different side of our hero’s personality. In the first we see an exuberant, almost delirious Charles on the eve of the Battle of Culledon spurning entreaties to de-escalate the situation and enter into peace agreements. It is here where Charles is at his most mesmerising and where Ryan Bown truly excels. Recalling memories of the late, great Rik Mayal, Bown bounded across the stage a rarefied mixture of impetuous narcissism and foppish buffoonery. All this swishing of limbs and cocking of heads could look comically stupid from a lesser actor but Bown clearly knows, and trusts his ability, understands his character and commits to its eccentricity. Coupled with dashing good lucks and chiselled, muscular figure he cuts very image of a charismatic war hero. The result is magnificent; we laugh, we are inspired and, at times, we are horrified. The opening act of The Young Pretender is one such act when the perfect script is married with the perfect actor and we the audience may just recline and enjoy.
The jaded and earnest Donald (Shawn McEachern) is an excellent foil for the swashbuckling Charles, painfully trying to get his friend and king to see sense. The actors have excellent on stage chemistry and we all feel Donald’s exasperation as he implores Charles to heed his advice while the latter natters on comically about trivialities that have distracted him.
In Act II the comedy is gone. Bonnie has fled for his life after humiliating defeat and has sought out Donald’s daughter, Flora,(Madeleine Osborne) to report her father’s demise. Here the dynamic of the opening scene has been turned on its axis. Bonnie is broken and ashamed. He is stripped to his underwear and hobbles on stage with awkwardness and self-doubt, his earlier flamboyance now a distant memory. Our humbled hero is juxtaposed with the spirited Flora who has embraced the Jacobite ideal with more fervour than Bonnie ever did. Incensed by the circumstances in which he has returned she makes his admission as excruciating as she possibly can by constantly his own chauvinistic rhetoric back in his face. Nothing else matters except winning she reminds him. They had been led to believe that winning was inevitable she remind him. They had sacrificed everything because they were assured they would win she reminds him. Bonnie largely accepts her censure; this is his penance and he endures it stoically.
Osborne is terrifying. Her Jacobite zeal blazes in her eyes and rings out in her piercing cries. Strikingly beautiful and impossibly sure of herself, her characterisation is utterly formidable. Bown show his versatility by becoming this wreck of a man just as convincingly as he portrayed him in full flight. Despite his athletic physique he looks weak, he plays with his hair uncertainly, he avoids eye contact, he hunches as he walks. From the moment he enters the stage we are left with the impression that this is a man who is embarrassed by his own very existence.
The final act is set at the beginning of the Jacobite uprising. It recounts when Bonnie and Donald first met and the former’s attempts to recruit the latter to the cause. Here we see a third Bonnie. An optimistic and hopeful young idealist, positive but not delusional. He is spirited but has not yet been consumed by narcissism. On a couple of occasions, he is actually forced to rein in Donald and impress upon him that a return of the Stuart’s, while desirable, is not a panacea to all his problems. We also see a very different incarnation of Donald. The wired lieutenant from the opening Act is now a humble and good natured farmer. He is interested and sympathetic to Jacobism. The show ends with the two of them in conversation, speculating happily about the wonderful things that will happen once the Stuarts take back the throne.
The Young Pretender is not a typical historical play. Though set in 1745 it adopts (mostly) modern wardrobes and dialogue. Artistically, this makes a lot of sense. This is not so much an historical retelling of events but a character study and the contemporary parlance allows us to glean a unique insight into this tragic figure. And the insight we get is sobering. What is the difference between Shakespeare’s Henry V (the character not the play) and EV Crowe’s Charles III? The main difference is that Henry won. The hubris in the face of defeat is often associated with great military generals pulling off legendary victories but what of the generals for whom fate doesn’t intervene? What of the Kings who fight against the odds and the odds prove to be correct? The Young Pretender tells that story and it tells it with beautiful poignancy.
The use of the modern dialogue also allows our protagonist to occasionally slip into the more florid arcane language to emphasise his poncier flourishes. The modern wardrobe too gives us insight into what kind of character we’re dealing with. Costume designer Caitlyn Hodder is genius in her creations of outfits which set tone and context far more effectively than any period costume could. The arrival of Bonnie on stage in kilt, singlet and Doc Martins, the Cross of St Andrew shaved into his hair, provided an instantaneous glimpse into the soul of our protagonist.
For anyone hoping for a thrilling ride through the Jacobite uprising The Young Pretender will be a disappointment. That is not what this play is. This is a deconstruction of a charismatic, eccentric and fatally flawed leader. And it is exquisite.
Nathan Lentern is a writer and performer