Floral shirts, neon-bright lighting and a stripping sequence that leaves you unsure if you’ll be getting a full frontal or not. As Paul Woodson stands proud in a tiny pair of y-fronts, this is certainly a Bonnie Prince Charlie for a whole new generation. One thing’s for sure: history was not like this at school.

In a concoction of the old and the new, the historical and the post-modern, the weariness of the past and the just-born idealism of youth, Young Pretender feels irresistibly fresh in its innovative melding of time and place. It is 1745 and Charlie is heading up the “Jaco” uprising in Scotland. But we could just as easily be in Russia in 1918, Cuba in 1959 or even London in 2011 with E V Crowe’s subtle depiction of the quest for something more – whatever that may be. Charlie seduces rather than recruits his followers, exemplified by family man-turned-revolutionary Donald who joins The Cause. Precisely what The Cause is, Crowe leaves tantalisingly open-ended whilst theorising on the nature of battle, the joy of freedom and the irrestible pull of change.

Woodson, on stage for every minute of this relentless, pseudo-historical tour-de-force, is mesmerising in his energy and vitality. Opposite this human maelstrom, Chris Starkie maintains Donald’s stable solemnity as he navigates the twists and turns of fortune and his fate becomes irrevocably entwined with that of the Young Pretender. A title that is both historically evocative and suggestive of the performative nature of Charlie’s various personas, Woodson layers mask upon mask so as to, in a seeming contradiction, both capture and camouflage the conflicting hopes, fears and desires of a young man just turning 25 and carrying the exhausting expectations of his army, his father and, perhaps most damagingly, his own insistent idealism.

Rebecca Elise is Flora, who offers the obstacle to Charlie’s ambitious cockiness. Not even humbled by standing naked and defeated in a burnt-out shack before begging for a dress to conceal his modesty, it is only rejection by this woman that comes close to stripping away Charlie’s layers of self-protecting bravado. Woodson is at his most watchable when sweet-talking the resistant Donald or artfully manoeuvring through Charlie’s continually changing thought processes without stumbling over a single word, but he reveals a vulnerable side to this irrepressible character in his confrontation with Flora. Elise teeters perfectly on the brink of anger and, despite the expletives pouring out of her lips, maintains a perplexing serenity as Flora agrees to take Charlie to Skye – to freedom. With a self-respect and integrity that Charlie and her father could never achieve, Elise shows us an unflinchingly honest Flora who offers to forget for a while what Charlie has done without allowing him the genuine freedom of forgiveness.

Crowe is playful with language and, beyond the script’s unflinching abundance of the kind of language that makes your mum blush, there lurks a starkly truthful rendering of human speech patterns. Charlie’s self-destructive foibles are revealed through his erratic and unpredictable dialogue, the refrain of “I me now yes” continually bespeaking his desire to affirm his identity and sense of belonging in time and place. Flora’s reprise of “It’s terrific” when faced with the man responsible for her father’s death, the loss of her home, the destruction of her hopes, is achingly powerful.

Young Pretender feels almost too relevant in light of the summer’s events; life imitating both art and history. Offering an insight into questions of heritage, idealism and self-knowledge, nabokov’s production, directed by Joe Murphy, crosses the centuries to capture both yesterday and today. The linguistic immediacy of Crowe’s script is reflected in the physicality of character and Jack Knowles’ stark lighting shifts coincide perfectly with the thumping rhythms of Edward Lewis’ soundscape, as evocative of a beating heart as a 1970s rave. As Charlie states, “Invade England and Scotland. Tick”, so too does Young Pretender invade, and go some way to conquer, the problem of giving history a voice relevant to modern audiences, as it unveils the multiple senses of self that can exist beyond the bounds of time and place. A thought-provoking and tantalising glimpse at an unfathomable historical figure and the mystique of the past.


Young Pretender played at Hull Truck Theatre, following a Edinburgh Festival Fringe debut and regional tour.

For more information on nabokov and its forthcoming productions, visit its website here.

For more information about Hull Truck Theatre, visit its website here.

Image credit: nabokov