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“Extremely vulnerable”: Review of The Sun King

It is difficult to imagine the stiflingly intimate space of the Burton Taylor transformed into a wide beach overlooking the expanse of the sea: The Sun King inspires us to do so. Uğur Özcan’s semi-autobiographical play presents a queer coming-of-age narrative with a small cast and a singular, beachfront setting. It is structured – coincidentally – around the same conceit as One Day: we meet our main character, Jamie (played by Matt Sheldon), upon this beach on the same, mid-September day each year as he blossoms from early puberty into adulthood. In so doing, the play takes on a lot of work in having to follow and develop the character over such a lengthy period – a project which explains its runtime of two hours – but does so with some success, inspiring our sympathies at the most crucial moments.

Jamie’s coming-of-age is presented through interactions with the Sun King (played by Jules Upson), who sinks from a figure of enchantment to one of oppression as the play progresses. His first entry shines a soothing light upon the lost, pre-pubescent Jamie, and his dialogue furnishes utopian images of paradise in ‘Summerland’. By the end of the play, Jamie has grown disenchanted with this figure of his imagination, providing an effective – if heavy-handed – figure for his disenchantment with his own country and transition into adulthood. The bright lights demarcating the Sun King’s entry by this point grow glaring and discomforting.

The programme and synopsis of The Sun King declare that it is set in a “developing country”. This setting point is unimportant and inevident at first, but grows in importance as Jamie grows older and becomes aware of the authoritarian political situation in his country, ultimately deciding to migrate. Though this plotline appeared a touch sudden – I, for one, failed to realise the unnamed, broadly ‘third-world’ setting until far too late in the play – it was well contrived, and perfectly captured the bittersweet essence of migration as a pursuit of freedom as well as a displacement from the spaces that defined one’s childhood.

The Sun King was extremely vulnerable in its writing, and deserves applause on that basis. In the naïve, slight character of Jamie we are reminded, perturbingly, of our own personal bildungsroman: the narrative lens with which we reminisce upon our own childhood and coming-of age. The performances of Upson and Sheldon were sympathetic and displayed an impressive stamina across a relatively long runtime. These two were well-complemented by Jenny and May (Ranya Hossain & Maisie Saunders), who inspired a few bouts of well-timed laughter and an uncomfortably accurate rendition ‘Welcome to the Black Parade’ (because adolescence, duh.)

The Sun King ran at the Burton-Taylor Studio from the 27th February until the 2nd March.

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