The Happy Prince
nytheatre.com review by Charles Battersby
May 1, 2005
One normally doesn’t associate Oscar Wilde with children's literature, but he did write a collection of short stories for his own children entitled The Happy Prince and Other Tales. These tales are moralistic in nature, intended to deter children from the evils of selfishness, arrogance, and hypocrisy, all with a healthy dose of Christian didacticism. Of course they were eventually published so that kids everywhere could learn from the adventures of “The Remarkable Rocket”, “The Selfish Giant,” and Wilde’s other fables.
"The Happy Prince" is about a jewel-encrusted statue of a—well, Prince who looks happy. The Prince statue (who can see and speak, but not move) can see all of the hardships of the people around him, but cannot do anything to alleviate the suffering he observes (so he only LOOKS happy). He meets a Swallow who’s migrating south, and convinces the bird to stay and spread wealth to the poor, by plucking out the statue’s jewels and distributing them to the hungry and sick. Through the statue's acts of generosity, the Swallow (and the audience) learn the lesson of self sacrifice.
Annie Wood has adapted Wilde's story into a children's theatre project, with puppets, musical numbers, and the prerequisite audience interaction. The adaptation is a pretty good reformatting of Wilde's story, and Wood has the integrity to keep Wilde's bittersweet ending, in which one character dies. The greatest deviation from Wilde is the addition of a framing device; in order to pad the short story up to an hour, about one third of the stage time is devoted to a story about two children who stumble across a magic garden, where one of the children tells the other child the tale of the Happy Prince.
The two children (and every other role) are played by the team of Paul Cunningham and Veronica Leer, with Cunningham later playing the Prince and Leer as the Swallow. Some of the supporting characters are puppets, so the duo not only demonstrate fine acting, but also prove to be skilled puppeteers as well. There’s a gentleness to their performance that helps soften the sometimes dark themes of the show.
Another deviation from the original story is that there’re a lot of references to modern popular entertainment in the show; the sort of gags that will go over well with American kids, such as lines about Disney characters and Shrek (Paul Cunningham, who plays the Prince, speaks with a Glasgow accent and sounds a lot like Mike Meyers’s various Scottish characters, including Shrek). There are also a few extremely topical jokes, like one about Martha Stewart. This feels a bit like pandering to the kids in the audience, but they don’t seem to mind being pandered to.
The play takes place in an enchanted garden which has a talking lion statue, among other wonders. The lion perfectly blends into the stonework of the surrounding garden, and when he first speaks, it's a magical moment for the children in the audience, thanks to excellent design by Karen Tennent.
There's plenty of child-friendly theatre sensibility here. Some of the songs have sing-a-long aspects ("Twinkle, twinkle little"- blank), and the staff at the New Victory Theatre wear paper prince crowns (these are available for the audience too and kids can “design [their] own happiness crown” if they show up an hour before the show).
This is quality children's entertainment, and reasonably fun for grown-ups too. The moral message of Wilde's original work—that self sacrifice really requires sacrifice—is a message kids ought to hear, and this show might give you a chance to introduce your children to Oscar Wilde. (But save Dorian Gray until they’re older.)