reviewed at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on 7 August
Anthony Hope added a new word to the English language in 1894 – Ruritania – with The Prisoner of Zenda. The romantic adventure novel was quickly adapted for the stage by Edward Rose (cast of thousands) and has been filmed countless times (likewise).
Mark Sterling’s version keeps the multiple settings, from palace and cathedral to forest hunting-lodge and gloomy castle dungeon but manages it all with a cast of seven. Tory Cobb has thrown in one of Suffolk Summer Theatre’s specialities (a train sequence) for good measure. Miri Birch’s costumes work better for the women than for the men.
The story concerns the disputed monarchy of one of those turbulent Balkan states sandwiched between two fading but still powerful empires – the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman – fiercely independent, proud of its traditions but wary of its neighbours. The about-to-be-crowned king is Rudolf V; his envious illegitimate half-brother Michael wants to take his place.
A proposed marriage between Rudolf and his cousin Flavia (who herself has a claim to the throne) is a further complication, as is Michael’s mistress Antoinette du Maubin. Then there’s Rudolf’s double, a folk-melody enthusiast from England, Rudolf Rassendyll. Not to mention Michael’s dashingly sinister wheeler-dealer factotum Rupert of Hentzau.
That hard-working cast take it all as seriously as it should do. Joe Leat’s double of the wine-addicted king and the English gentleman who takes his place at the behest of loyal Colonel Sapt and Fritz von Tarlenheim is very well contrasted, the one all sodden self-pity and the other reluctantly dashing.
Rick Savery is suitably sinister as Michael, though Saul Boyer didn’t (for me on the opening night) quite strike the right note for a man who takes such pleasure and pride in manipulating others. Clive Flint’s Sapt and Tom Slatter’s Fritz are stalwart in their military attempts to keep the monarchy in place, whatever their personal feelings about the incumbant.
In this version, Amy Christina Murray as Princess Flavia has more to do than just be the decorative object of Rassendyll’s self-sacrificing love, an updating which works in the context. Sarah Ogley’s Antoinette is also more than her dark mirror image. Richard Blaine stages an excellent couple of sword fights, though the costume department could surely have provided sheathes for them when not in use.
Noisy scene changes will presumably quieten down and be slicker (too many glimpses of the people effecting them on the opening night) as the run and its transfers progress. One query – in the last meeting between restored king and his English saviour, why does Rasendyll have dark hair when he and the king have been much lighter throughout?
Four star rating.
The Prisoner of Zenda runs at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh until 12 August with matinées on 10 and 12 August. It transfers to the Southwold Arts Centre between 15 and 26 August and can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds from 6 to 9 September.