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‘A play we are sure to see again & again’: THREE KINGS – Old Vic (Online review)

Good things come to those who wait, an axiom that applies in duplicate to Stephen Beresford’s latest play Three Kings screened via the Old Vic’s innovative In Camera series for just five performances. Delayed in late July due to cast illness, this beautiful piece of new writing appears just as theatre more generally is taking its first tentative steps back to live performance.

After a spring and summer of free archive shows and Zoom Shakespeare, we have reached the hybrid phase, a mixed-model of socially distanced productions in reduced capacity venues such as the Open Air Theatre’s extraordinary Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert and the Bridge Theatre’s monologue season beginning with Beat the Devil, and paid-for screenings of shows performed live with no audience of which Three Kings is an exemplar.

With Bristol Old Vic’s ‘regional tour’ of Romantics Anonymous playing live and available by geographical area in late September with the cast living together as a Covid bubble to circumvent social distancing requirements, Nottingham Playhouse announcing a festival of new work in late October that will simultaneously perform live to a reduced capacity audience and be live streamed, and another Old Vic: In Camera production scheduled for two weeks time (Brian Friel’s Faith Healer with Michael Sheen, Indira Varma and David Threlfall) this is a fascinating period of transformation and potential democratisation for a sector newly warmed to the possibilities of an international audience exceeding the limitations of venue capacity and ticket pricing.

Three Kings suggests there is every reason why new approaches to the creation and sharing of theatre content should work, a vividly drawn yet sensitive 60-minute piece about the lasting influence of a carefree absent father and his impact on the children he abandoned. Told from the perspective of eldest son Patrick (a name he shares with his father and, later, his half-brother), Beresford taps-into a noticeable thematic interest in masculinity, father-son relationships and the genetic legacy of behaviour that has been present in other work appearing on the 2020 stage.

Comparisons with Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’ equally fascinating The Death of England – which will soon be followed by a companion piece at the National Theatre – are particularly striking and while Beresford’s play has no overt political angle, the complex attachment between parent and child, the inability to fully recognise or express their emotional connection and the notion of inherited characteristics passing between the generations resonate through both works. It is particularly notable that the protagonists of both these single-perspective plays, Patrick and Michael, feel a sense of powerlessness, somehow drawn to the charisma of the older man without fully understanding why or attempting to analyse that troubled yet alluring power.

Patrick and Michael are young men shaped entirely by their father’s influence, replicating their patterns of behaviour and even their modes of interaction without noticing how completely that relationship has shaped their own personality. They convince themselves they are separate, possibly even better men with liberality in their views and an ability to recognise their respective father’s shortcomings. Yet, neither can prevent a  semi-idolisation of their faulty dads, and while desperate to be different become frustratingly aware that they will never be quite the man their father is.

Beresford’s writing is particular good at building the power of absence and the painful longing it creates, the terrible behaviour of Patrick senior and lengthy intervals between meetings with his son have a greater impact than his ever-present mother and sister who receive scant mention in the monologue. In a single character play, it is essential that the writer establishes a strong physical presence for unseen characters, allowing the audience to really believe the scenario, understanding both the personality, reality and even obsession with the missing subject which Beresford achieves with skill.

Throughout Three Kings, Patrick’s amusing impressions of his father’s slightly fey and dismissive manner, the carelessness of his action and thoughtless selfishness, allow Beresford  to convincingly create the impression of a man hardly known to his son but nonetheless a significant force in his life. Just who Patrick is, his job, lifestyle, personality and history are left unsketched, the relationship with his father, anecdotes about their meetings and reflections on himself through memories of his father fill his mind and this story with considerable potency.

Time is fluid in Beresford’s writing and while the story is roughly chronological, Patrick is reliving it from a point of future knowledge. These are memories recalled, conversations recounted and wounds reopened while sometimes couching recollections within each other. Patrick’s honesty with the audience, his willingness to reveal close-cutting truths ebbs and flows throughout the play as he weighs-up the things he wants us to know, the traits he is prepared to accept in himself and the truths he’s not quite ready to face.

Framed by a trick with three coins learned from his father, Patrick explains that “the force of the one ricochets through the other two” and this becomes a metaphor for the play itself, as the lead explores the unavoidable similarities between his father, half-brother and himself. This concept of personality as legacy that equally interested Dyer and Williams becomes the driving force of Beresford’s story as the concept of the Three Kings trick and the blood-link between the three men is elaborated. The idea that genetic inheritance comes regardless of desire or active attempts to reject a predecessor’s way of life troubles Patrick increasingly as temporary bouts of bitterness give way to emotional confusion, even deterioration as an abiding love for the man he barely knew commingles with the fear of becoming just like him.

Director Matthew Warchus has taken an unusual but potentially resonant approach to staging this play, setting the action backwards on the stage to capture the lovely interior of the empty theatre in the background and utilising the over-familiarity of Zoom boxes to create several intriguing split-screen effects that vary the presentation of the monologue as the strands of the story and Patrick’s mental distraction evolve. Using one wide-screen camera at first, Warchus keeps the focus high and tight on the actor’s face, bruisingly intimate from the start, as Patrick recounts his first childhood encounter, glancing-upwards as though looking at a much taller grown-up.

But, in the second section of the play, we see Andrew Scott in two side-by-side boxes, the camera positioned at slightly different angles; one close-up of his face, the other a longer shot that helps to create the impression of physically filling stage and screen. It results in a two-fold effect and this section includes extended conversations in Spain with his father’s friend Dennis and later with a former lover called Trisha who runs a Salsa bar. Warchus uses the boxes to artificially create the feel of those conversation occurring, eliciting those sections of interaction from Beresford’s writing and giving the impression of back-and-forth on screen.

But, secondly, it draws attention to an underlying psychological split in the character of Patrick, as though the ghostly shadow of his father was permanently following him, not quite the same person, but virtually mirroring his actions. This intriguingly underlines Patrick’s inability to escape from or overcome his errant father’s influence and in the final section of the performance this expands to three boxes as Patrick discovers a third shadow self in his half-brother. Beresford notion that force of one resonates through the other two is given visual cognisance by this filming technique.

Warchus positions the cameras to capture these slightly different angles of Andrew Scott’s performance as well as employing variation in close-up and scale between the two or three box format to maintain the intimacy of Patrick’s monologue but also its breadth as he encounters a wider international community of characters. Given the limitations of live Zoom recordings and the film-like grainy-quality of the stream, it lacks the visual polish of a National Theatre Live operation and some of the musical choices in the scene changes momentarily make the 2-3 box format feel like a jaunty 1960s detective drama, yet the approach successfully contributes to the production in a way that feels genuinely purposeful.

Scott is a vivid creator of scene and his management of the unfolding story is particularly adept, transporting the audience to different time periods and locations with ease. As Patrick moves between Dublin, Spain and places in between, Scott evokes the physical and emotional separation from a father whose allure becomes increasingly fascinating to the son he hardly knows. The actor also creates a series of vocally distinct secondary characters whose speech he relays to the audience including the colourless monotone of Dennis, the viscious cool of Trisha and particularly the louche dismissiveness of Patrick Senior demanding his son impresses him, the hint of an adult Lost Boy always looking for the next big adventure.

Patrick, in his way, is almost as unknowable and Three Kings deliberately provides little biographical detail to situate the character in a specific era. Scott is always so good at getting under the skin of his characters and, as with his Hamlet for the Almeida and his Garry Essendine in the Old Vic’s Present Laughter, here he gets beneath and between Beresford’s lines to find a complicated mixture of pain, regret and quiet despair, a son discovering the price of love for a man he can never really know. The absence Patrick’s father leaves takes physical form in Scott’s performance, creating a hollow in the centre of our protagonist that will never be filled. As he listens to a voicemail from a lover outlining his own relatable faults and hears similar tales from his brother, the parallels between the three men psychologically resound and suddenly we know them, see the trajectory and pattern of their lives, three lifetimes of empty encounters.

It is hugely empathetic work from Scott that both grips and moves the audience. As with Seawall, the actor is adept at these slow-burn narrative pieces that develop to an emotional crescendo as the fragile central character confronts difficult personal truths. Scott skillfully anatomises Patrick’s relationship with his creator charting a path from a youthful desperation to impress to anger and resentment as a grown-up, trading email insults during a series of mini-betrayals that sour their interaction. But Scott never allows Patrick to entirely disconnect from the need to be loved by his father, so when the final chance is gone we see just how lost and broken he is and will always be.

By championing the world premiere of Beresford’s poignant play the Old Vic is supporting an international audience hungry for new work, and with its programme of new writing and freshly staged revivals the Old Vic: In Camera series is leading the way. There is a long way to go for most venues and we can expect to see a hybrid model of socially distant and live-streamed performances for some time, but the commitment to staging new work at theatres around the country is a positive sign as the sector slowly begins its recovery. With a touching and meaningful performance by Andrew Scott, Three Kings is a play we are sure to see again and again.

Three Kings ran via the Old Vic: In Camera until 5 September. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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