I have been struggling to review theater this summer. Even plays that I like, when shrunken into the Zoom theater form, have been hard to concentrate on.
I cannot keep my focus. I’m puttering around the house while carrying my laptop, half-heartedly “participating” while not being mentally in the room. I’m in it for a minute and then I drift.
The world collapsed into Zoom—for work, for socializing, for theater—is writ too small and is flattened into a sameness that stabs at my soul.
So, I was surprised to find myself so attentive to Stephen Beresford’s new play, Three Kings, a monologue performed by Andrew Scott.
While many love Scott’s work, I’ve not always found Scott to be a riveting stage performer. He can be exhilarating, but also middling and expected depending on the material. His Hamlet may have been one of the best I’ve ever seen, his performance in Private Lives (via NTLive) was rollicking and poignant, yet I found his rock star in Birdland unmoving and detached.
Here, Scott is overbroad and self-conscious at the start, but his performance grew on me over time, as did the play. It’s not a life-changer, but something colorful and meaty for an actor to dig into and with quite a few lines where I barked with laughter. It shares a sad truth about life and people, only getting a little overwrought at the end.
In Three Kings, Patrick (Scott) reflects on the life and death of his narcissistic father, the complicated legacy he’s been left with, and the damage wrought along the way.
Patrick’s father is a player, a con artist, a criminal, a flirt, a liar, and most of all a “character.” He abandoned the family and only occasionally has popped up in Patrick’s life. He is flamboyant, performative, and dramatic.
Scott plays him appropriately big and then gives a slightly quieter version with Patrick, who develops his own more socially palatable version of Dad’s exaggerated tendencies. They are raconteurs and charmers, with a hint of malevolence. With my own childhood filled with bad dads and narcissists, I found Beresford’s characterizations spot on.
Beresford avoids some monstrous caricature of paternal evil and offers instead a run-of-the-mill shitty father guilty of neglect, absenteeism, self-absorption, and casual to extreme cruelty. It’s enough to still be dramatic, but grounded in a very real place. He’s breezily terrible and all too familiar to me.
At one point, Patrick’s father says something unbelievably oblivious and hurtful, and Patrick says to himself “Had he forgotten who he was speaking with.” Scott reveals Patrick’s wince at this stunning slap of invisibility. It’s a feeling I’ve had myself with my own late father. Some parents have only a performative self which serves them in many other contexts, but it falls flat and is entirely inappropriate with their own child. They have no parental mode. Their conversational gears grind to a halt when their audience does not applaud the “show.”
Beresford does a great job in one scene of pitting Patrick against an unsuspecting “nice” guy Dennis (a man who loves his family), who is unprepared for the depth of destruction that Patrick’s father has caused. Patrick knows this and can see how painful it is to Dennis burst his bubble around the mythology of familial love. Not everyone loves their family and for some people that reality is too hard to bear. Patrick toys with that, jabbing Dennis slightly with his hurtful truth and then regretting it.
Scott’s Dennis is pursed and the discomfort tugs at his cheeks, while his Patrick flits from anger, to frustration, to remorse, to tantalizing boundary testing throughout their conversation.
But the play’s success grows when Patrick meets his half-brother and is confronted with someone who looks like him but functions entirely differently—with warmth and a naturalism that Patrick does not possess. Patrick is explaining his visit to his father’s deathbed in his usual storytelling mode, and his half-brother weeps. Patrick is confronted with his own detachment, his performative nature, and the cycle repeating itself.
With a staging by Matthew Warchus, the screen splits into two and then three as Patrick goes on a journey to see his father before he dies and as the Patricks in the world multiply (father, son, other son). It’s a helpful visual variation (zoom fatigue is real) and dramaturgically appropriate.
The Old Vic’s multi-camera live performance also gives us full bodies and a sense of space. While there is a minimal set, for a bit we can see the lit empty audience behind Scott and then it falls to black. Even if he’s trying to stay on his marks and in focus, there’s room to move and breath a bit, unlike some of the confining boxes usually seen on Zoom.
Notwithstanding my struggles, there is value in Zoom theater. Here’s a new play I would not have seen, but for this format. I could attend easily without sweating a commute to make curtain time. This was a live performance taking place in London that anyone around the world could watch. There are live captions and audio descriptions.
Although like the Before Times, it’s a scrum to get a cheap ticket and the time zone difference means an early morning wake-up for New Yorkers to go online and fight it out in a digital queue. Tickets are also limited with tiered ticket prices and there’s a priority booking period if you want to pay for early access. So some things do not change. But there’s something here cracking open theaters a bit wider to the world overall.
I just long for a world where these airings are an option and only one part of my life, not the entirety of it.