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The Making of Frederick the Great at The Cockpit

Australian Eliza Larkey’s first stage play is no mean feat: to try to put the life, loves and achievements of one of the most influential rulers of all time on stage, and it is a valiant attempt, even though there is obviously much that has to be omitted, and the story only takes us as far as Prussia’s war with Silesia, leaving most of Frederick’s other achievements untold!

The Making of Frederick the Great
The Making of Frederick the Great.

She does this by structuring her play as a series of short fast scenes which flow into each other, therefore giving the piece energy. In this, she is greatly helped by the director, Charlotte Kindred, who has realised that, as the play is rather “wordy”, a good pace is essential! In fact, at times it all becomes rather manic as the audience gets little time to digest one scene before the next one seems to have finished, but this is essential as the play’s running time is 110 minutes without an interval. After about 60 minutes, the cast seem gradually to lose the energy the director is trying to achieve and the play would have benefitted either from an interval so that both cast and audience could recover or by being pruned by about 30 minutes.

In addition, the playwright uses the simple device of “flashback” frequently, so that Frederick the Great’s father’s influence can be seen. Although this begins to get irritating, as it interferes with the flow of the story, this character, Frederick William, is by far the best written, motivation always being crystal clear, and in the hands of Phil McDermott a very convincing and believable role. He is supposed to have been a very autocratic monarch with a bad temper, and this was certainly evident in McDermott’s performance.

Frederick the Great himself, onstage for almost the entire time, is in the hands of Jake O’Hare, gradually maturing from a rather effete artistic young man to a successful war tactician. His second male lover (the first seems not to be mentioned) Katte is played by Tommy Papaioannou, who seems to have difficulty in enunciating clearly some of what he is asked to say. Maria Theresa (yes the Holy Roman Empire – neither Holy nor Roman nor an empire – comes into this story!) is portrayed by Charlotte Kindred, but here, as elsewhere, the playwright seems to be trying to do too much in a short time, so that her motivation is not always clear – unless you are an expert on this period (1712-1786) of European history! Luckily I studied it for ‘A’ level but that was a long time ago!!!

The director uses cross-gender casting (Kara Taylor Alberts) in the role of Voltaire, who advised Frederick early in his reign and others in the cast include Kathryn Haywood, India Parton, Jaydon Merrick, Pollyanna Knight and Chay Giles, all of whom acquit themselves competently in this epic tale.

The play is staged “in-the-round” which means that it is easy to feel involved with the protagonists, but the acting area often looks bare without a vestige of scenery apart from the occasional chair. No lighting designer is credited and there are some unexpected lighting changes in the middle of scenes. However, the various fights are very effectively staged by Jake O’Hare. It is a shame that there is no programme, which could have given some brief historical background for those not up in the First and Second Silesian Wars, as well as the First Partition of Poland: even a cast/creatives list would have helped, certainly in acknowledging the hard work that has gone into this production.

As a first play, Frederick the Great is an impressive debut and is certainly “theatrical” in scope. I look forward to seeing further work, perhaps a tad less ambitious, from Eliza Larkey. It is being performed on Sundays only for the next few weeks, but I would strongly suggest that if you know little of The Seven Years’ War and The War of the Austrian Succession, you do some homework first!

3 Star Review

Review by John Groves

The play tears up the history books and reassembles them, placing Frederick’s previously overlooked queer identity at the heart of his story. Frederick an artistic, book-loving, anti-war, queer man, born into a world where greatness is defined by the bodies amassed on the battlefield, did not appear destined for the title of ‘Great.’

Alternating between two time periods, we see Frederick’s journey from a lovesick Prince to the bloodthirsty King. Along the way, we meet other prolific figures in 18th Century Europe, including Maria Theresa and Voltaire. This enthralling, heart-wrenching story is full of nasty characters, dynamic fight scenes and a distinguished ensemble. It will surely leave audiences googling, ‘Did THAT really happen?’ and the answer is ‘YES, it’s all true!’

Creative Team
Writer/Director – Eliza Larkey
Director – Charlotte Kindred
Choreographer – Aisling Turner
Fight Director – Jake O’Hare

Cast
Frederick the Great- Jake O’Hare
Katte – Tommy Papaioannou
Queen Sophia – Kathryn Haywood
Wilhemine- India Parton
Frederick William – Phil McDermott
Maria Theresa – Charlotte Kindred
Francis – Jaydon Merrick
Voltaire – Kara Taylor Alberts
Schwerin – Pollyanna Knight
Maurpetius – Chay Giles
Produced by Larkey Kindred Productions

The Making of Frederick the Great
Venue: The Cockpit, Gateforth St, London NW8 8EH
Playing every Sunday throughout August
https://www.thecockpit.org.uk/

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Author

  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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