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 Connecting professional and amateur theatre in Newbury, West Berkshire and beyond

Watermill - The Prisoner of Zenda

4th October to 11th November 2002.

The Newbury Weekly News had this to say.

Romancing in the true swashbuckling tradition

'THE PRISONER OF ZENDA', at the Watermill Theatre, until November 11

Question: What happens when you take a 'ripping yarn' that is known to millions as one of cinema's ultimate swashbuckling movies and stage it in the intimate setting of The Watermill Theatre? Answer: Pure magic.

Under the direction of Robert Horwell, Euan Smith's a adaptation of Anthony Hope's novel renders the proverbial cast of thousands down to the concentrated talents of five performers who act out this tale of love, revenge and the ultimate triumph of good over evil with a breathtaking intensity. Anybody who has ever struggled to learn just one part could only marvel at the way the cast leads the audience through the narrative with each actor assuming the central role and turning what was ostensibly a monologue into an extraordinary piece of theatre.

If the actors work hard on their multiple personalities then the set, designed by Will Hargreaves, is on overtime from the very start. Packing cases become trains and towers, planks of wood become drawbridges and dungeons, soldier's cloaks change into peasant dirndls and macho henchmen transform themselves into winsome village maidens before our very eyes.

The success of this piece owes a great deal to the fact that the production stays true to its origins and deftly pays homage to Hollywood 'corn' and swashbuckling convention. Imaginary blades clashing to on-stage sound effects and the use of slow motion give the obligatory fight scenes a tremendous bravura quality despite the confined acting area. High comedy is allowed to rub shoulders with moral dilemmas while the themes of 'real politiks' and personal choice bubble unexpectedly to the surface of what, for all its darkness, is also a very tender love story.

An adaptation can, by its very nature, fall into the trap of riding roughshod over the original intent and end up basking in little more than its own cleverness. That this one avoids such pitfalls is a tribute to the quality of the cast, who despite having huge and obvious talents, have used them wisely to create an evening of pure enjoyment not to be missed for all the jewels in Ruritania.


This was the Kick FM review.

This is a story of mistaken identity, with Rudolph from England being mistaken for, and eventually taking the place of, Prince Rudolph of Ruritania.

With just five actors, you expect some doubling up of parts. What I didn’t expect was to find all five of them playing the same part – the part of the hero, Rudolph Rassendyl, and this was pretty confusing at first. Especially as, at the beginning, the scene is set by some fairly complex narrative from all the cast. If you don’t pay attention at the start, you’ll soon find yourself lost.

I wasn’t sure what this play was trying to be. At times it was comedy, at times it was swashbuckling action. At one point, when the king gets poisoned at dinner, it moved into melodrama. And all the way through, there was lots and lots of wordy narrative. I felt that Euan Smith, as adapter, and Robert Horwell, as director, had set themselves an impossible task, of trying to constrain the complicated story into the confines of the Watermill.

The play was in the round, with a boarded stage decked with wooden boxes. In this respect, it was very similar to the Watermill’s recent production of Carmen, but while Carmen powered through with the force of its story and songs, The Prisoner of Zenda seemed to get bogged down in the mechanics of the set – the construction of a moat and drawbridge took a lot of time and was cleverly done, but was it really necessary?

There was some very clever visual imagery: the swordless fights, with sounds made offstage by one of the cast, were particularly good, and the blood in the form of red silk scarves was another effective touch, as were the horse riding and the slo-mo fights.

The cast were all good, and showed their versatility in a variety of roles. On the night I went it was a bit under-rehearsed, but that was because Richard Clothier had had to replace one of the original cast at very short notice.

To sum up: rather too wordy, but with a strong cast and some imaginative touches. It’s on at the Watermill until the 11th November.