Review - Andrew Scott in Three Kings at The Old Vic
Full disclosure: I don't like one-person shows. As someone who, in pre-pandemic days, saw upwards of 150 shows a year on both sides of the ocean, I would take great lengths to avoid the dreaded solo fare. When social distancing restrictions started to proliferate the form on stages everywhere, I cringed, not knowing what to expect.
There are exceptions to this personal rule, of course. Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag. Mike Birbiglia in The New One. Billy Crudup in Harry Clarke. Anything with John Leguizamo or Anna Deavere Smith. But generally, I'm not one for monologuing, whether onstage or a few drinks in at the pub.
Well, there's a new show to add to that list of exceptions and potentially a recall of the rule itself: Stephen Beresford's Three Kings, the latest play as part of The Old Vic's livestreamed In Camera series. As performed by the acting master Andrew Scott, all of the characters come alive separately through a facial tick or a simple gesture or a sneaking glance, that it hardly seems like a play performed by one man. And Scott seems to be peering into the viewer's soul as he delivers this relatable tale of patriarchal estrangement and familial missed connections.
This showing also marked my first live theatrical experience in six months since theatres shut down in March. Although by virtue of my profession, I'm writing about and tuning into theatre news around the world every day, something about the nature of Zoom drama didn't appeal to me. It didn't feel the same. It felt like a reminder of what was lost. The chasm between audience and actor seemed too deep, impenetrable.
But in The Old Vic's unique format where the actor performs the show live from the theatre's stage, the reminder of the loss feels seemingly both bigger and smaller at the same time. Logging into the "meeting" 30 minutes prior to curtain, the white noise of audience members shuffling around the theatre hums through the computer's speakers. A stage manager comes on in ten and then five and then one minute intervals to alert viewers of the performance start time.
While running to get a drink from your refrigerator or taking a break in your own loo is much swifter than the queues one typically encounters in an actual theatre, the ritual is still there. The sounds that interrupt the drama might not be fellow audience members' cell phones or rustling candy wrappers, but the buzz of the refrigerator and the cars on the street and the chatting in the building lobby quickly fill this void.
When Scott appears on the screen, after a brief pre-recorded welcome from artistic director Matthew Warchus that feels not unlike a preview before a movie, you only see his hands and three coins — a bar game, called the Three Kings.
The first can be touched and moved.
The second can be touched but not moved.
The third can be moved but not touched.
Now, he posits, how can you place the first coin between the second and the third? He's playing out a conversation between a father and his eight-year-old son. In fact, father and son are meeting for the first time, and the father is trying to measure his son's wits, as his son, Patrick, sits in awe.
Patrick's relationship with his father — and personal exploration of who his father is and was — becomes the tale we follow through this story, as he encounters his namesake in fits and spurts throughout his life, evaluating the distance and closeness.
This paradox is not unlike the experience of seeing theatre virtually. We're at once closer to Scott, as Warchus's direction initially thrives in the closeup as Scott delivers much of the dialogue in direct address, making us, the viewer, feel as if we're in an intimate conversation on the other end. We can see Scott's every emotion, that even a front-row patron might not catch. We watch Scott's sweat and tears and how the minimal stage lighting illuminates his enunciating spit.
As the play progresses, the camera angles morph into a split screen, allowing your eyes to wander between them, not unlike how onstage, one would be able to choose what to look at, whereas in film, the camera angle is so often chosen for you. Scott's genius lingers in the silences, the subtleties, the pauses, letting the emotions hang rapt in the balance. Whether in person or on Zoom, the dramatic tension translates. The aliveness is there.
And yet, as Patrick explores his fizzled connection with his father, we're also reminded of our distant connection to the production itself. We're not there feeling the communal experience of the theatre. But we're also feeling something bigger than that. Whether we're in a room together or all logged into the same Zoom, there will always be something of an abyss between us — as audience members, as people.
But we're also having this rich experience, and in the virtual world, that experience can be so much bigger, as people from all over the world can tune in. As a New York City-based editor of a London-based site, I would not have been able to see this production, pandemic or not, without the outfittings of technology. The ephemeral energy is there; this is a live performance and won't be seen anywhere else again.
By virtue of Scott's skyrocketing star, thanks in part to his expert performances in Fleabag and Sherlock, this platform can introduce so many more people to the theatre and expand access. If the production was live in a physical theatre, so many international fans might not be having not just their first theatrical experience in six months but maybe their first ever. When else have you been able to grab your very own can of G+T and watch Hot Priest put on a play from your living room?
While I usually shy away from making my theatrical writing so personal and often shun the first person when editing, this review, also, feels like an exception to that rule and maybe a new perspective in how I approach my own writing. You see, in addition to this being my first time back at the "theatre" in months, this review also marks a return, of sorts, to theatre criticism, my first love when I entered a career in theatrical media over a decade ago.
This passion for putting a pen to paper and expressing my thoughts about this art form gave way to editorial strategy, management meetings, click-worthy headlines, and more that provide greater job security but ultimately less youthful joie-de-vivre. I've realized, in writing this, that I missed that too, just like Patrick seeks to connect back to the young eight-year-old wowed by his father's tricks.
This part of me that I unknowingly, accidentally shuttered comes back as I'm watching this show, as I'm watching Scott communicate the chasm we feel between past versions of ourselves and our family. I don't want to find myself in years on my knees begging for a sort of forgiveness for not staying true to who I was and what I wanted.
So let this be a promise of sorts, dear reader, if you're out there. As I take on the editor role of this respected and cherished site in a time when the very nature and definition of theatre feels in flux, I vow to always bring my whole self to the table and hope that you'll join me in this journey back toward shared experiences.
And while our distance might be through an Internet portal, a series of tubes translating messages, I hope you feel the immediacy of the message, of the shared love of the art form, of the way in which we want to capture the immediacy and fleeting nature of the stage itself.
I hope you know that no matter where you are in the world, theatre is available and accessible to you -- through a screen, through a review, and hopefully, one day soon, back on a stage.
Three Kings played at The Old Vic as part of the In Camera series 3-5 September.
Originally published on