Image credit: Freddie Houlahan

The Sun King review: fantasy that bites back

The last week of Hilary term can be quite a sobering affair as we get the first glimpses of sunshine for months, surely soon to be interrupted by the odd torrential downpour. It’s a time to reflect on the festive magic of Michaelmas and the apparent guarantee of a Trinity to remember in the near future. The original student production The Sun King, which premiered on Tuesday 5th March at the Burton Taylor Studio, hits on all those end-of-term contemplations through a vibrantly unique fantastical lens.

Written and directed by Uğur Özcan, the play is inspired by real-life political events that he witnessed growing up in Turkey, namely the 2013 Gezi Park protests and the 2016 attempted coup d’état. The coming-of-age genre The Sun King fits into is not often seen to be the place for such heavy topics, but Özcan balances the personal journey of protagonist Jamie (Matt Sheldon) with powerful political mirroring effectively.

At the beginning of the play, Jamie is an 11-year-old (well, in his words, “nearly-12-year-old”) boy in an unnamed developing country who lives in worlds of fantasy, enjoying the likes of Divergent and The Chronicles of Narnia. He seeks escapism from the harsh realities of the real world, where he doesn’t fit in with the other boys like his cousin Dani (Theo Joly). He meets the eponymous character, played by Jules Upson, on a beach, where almost the entire play is set. He is the king of a mystical realm called Summerland, where it is always sunny and the people are always happy.

As an audience member, you can tell from the outset that the visage the Sun King creates of his ideal land will soon be knocked down, but the play’s method of doing so is far from predictable. From the outset Upson cuts a dominating alien figure in his two-hander scenes with Sheldon, speaking the Queen’s English gracefully but robotically. He stands upright and is notably less expressive than the other characters, choosing to switch between a few heightened facial emotions rather than gradually shifting his visual mood. When excited, angry, or (rarely) surprised, Upson’s eyes go tantalisingly wide but the Sun King still feels in control of proceedings – it’s a masterful performance.

The most masterful element of it all is the Sun King’s booming voice. It begins as a demonstration of his authority and confidence compared to the meek and lonely Jamie, but their verbal sparring matches in the second half communicate the king’s tyrannical transformation to great effect. It’s transformative to the audience, and Jamie to an extent, but in reality he has always been this way – the truth has been slowly unveiled until the picture of the titular character in the beginning is almost completely different to the one at the end. I found his ventriloquising of figures from Jamie’s past, from his school bullies to his grandfather, a particularly effective means of both developing the play’s central character and enabling Upson to display a wider emotional range.

As mentioned earlier, the play is primarily a two-hander, and Upson’s at times frankly terrifying performance is evenly matched with Sheldon’s dynamism. Jamie undergoes a lot of change throughout the play, from realising his homosexuality to briefly taking the Sun King’s place as ruler of his mystical realm, and Sheldon’s performance shoulders that burden well. Jamie is intentionally underplayed in the first half, seemingly wrapped around the finger of his eager imaginary advisor, which only makes his condemnation of the Sun King in the second all the more powerful. You feel that he has truly become a stronger person, able to stand up to someone who, on the surface, seems like a perfect fit for his fantastical dreams. I really enjoyed the subtle change in both characters’ styling in the transition from the first half to the second – the Sun King dons leather vambraces over the vibrant golden stitching of his shirt, whereas Jamie upgrades from a yellow T-shirt to a more serious green shirt, noticeably distancing himself aesthetically from the warmth of the Sun King’s rays.

The relationship between the two principal characters descends into conflict fairly quickly, but there are also genuine moments of happiness which show the draw of a place like Summerland for Jamie, regardless of the faults he discovers in his enquiries. The use of pink lighting to capture the beauty of the sunrise during the moments where Jamie gets a glimpse of the majesty of the Sun King’s wonderland complements Sheldon’s affecting performance brilliantly. The move from his tranquil scene to the blood-red light permeating throughout Jamie’s future as successor to the Sun King depicts the natural evolution from ambition to tyranny that Özcan plays with so well throughout the play.

The supporting cast manage to inject some much-needed lightness at crucial moments in the play. Jenny (Ranya Hossain) and May (Maisie Saunders) assist in humanising Jamie by showing his behaviour around his peers. Even though the Sun King starts by insisting that he and Jamie are equals, that never feels like the case given the tension in their scenes together. It is also principally through Jenny, May, and Dani that the audience gets a feel for how the oppressive regime of their nameless country compares to that of Summerland. The political leader of Jamie’s realm, referred to only as ‘him’, instals curfews, lays academic freedom to ruin, and attempts to shut down schools. The Sun King is more akin to a fantastical tyrant than a megalomaniacal prime minister, executing traitors and subjugating gods, but clear lines of comparison can be drawn. When, at the conclusion of the play, Jamie states that he feels sorry for ‘him’, it’s clear the sentiment is there to be applied to the Sun King.

The technical elements of the production felt very high-quality, particularly the lighting, which managed to create distinct atmospheres based on whether scenes were set during the day, while the sun was setting, or at night. The music was fantastic too – both the summery yet sombre playlist that played before the beginning of the play and during the interval as well as the incredibly poignant piano which accompanied the emotional climax of the drama. The timing of the chords being struck worked perfectly to deliver a sense of utter despair and powerlessness as desperation to maintain control of Summerland swallowed Jamie whole.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my night spent with the vibrantly written and well-performed characters of The Sun King. If you’re looking for a bit of escapism to kick off your Easter vacation, packed with some ruthless political commentary to send you crashing back to earth, this play is for you.

The Sun King is playing at the Burton Taylor Studio at 19:30 from 5th-9th March.

Image credit: Freddie Houlahan