The Making of Frederick the Great proves an admirably ambitious entry for this year’s Camden Fringe at the Cockpit Theatre
“What does it take to achieve greatness?”
One of the joys of theatre is its ability to illuminate and elucidate undersung stories. Historical biographies of successful monarchs are no stranger to the stage but Larkey Kindred Productions have landed on one whose story has rarely, if ever been performed onstage before. Frederick the Great was the King in Prussia (and then the King of Prussia, it’s a thing…) and his military acumen made him of one of the great figures of 18th century Europe. He was also a queer man.
Eliza Larkey’s The Making of Frederick the Great delves into this particular slice of history with great gusto, having identified that as a young man, Frederick was more interested in music, literature and philosophy than being Crown Prince and studying war. He was the kind of boy who preferred the flute bought for him by his mother than the toy soldiers given to him by his father. And by the time he was flailing around in his military training, it was a different type of swordplay that was arousing his interest, particularly where the dashing Lieutenant Hans Hermann von Katte was concerned.
Co-directed with Charlotte Kindred, Larkey’s play opts for a dual timeline, following Frederick as a young man fighting his destiny while exploring his sexuality, and also a new King, defying expectation and convention to become the ruler his father never thought he could be and whose rivals severely underestimated him. It’s a neat way of covering a wider swathe of this period of history and also succinctly makes the point about how our upbringing can shape character development even if it is the last thing in the world we expect.
These twin tracks are also however a touch discombobulating as they’re not always so clearly defined and the narrative has to battle with history books full of exposition – the Pragmatic Sanction, the Silesian Wars, Holy Roman betrayal…there’s a lot to take in. Larkey is stronger at the interpersonal stuff – Frederick’s relationships with his father, mother and sister are all richly defined and there’s real buy-in to his connection to Katte which brings real emotion to what they are forced to endure. The final third with its focus on military success feels less essential and integral to our understanding of Frederick the man.
Still, it’s a great introduction (to most of us, I would assume) to a slice of fascinating history that doesn’t hedge its bets like the Wikipedia page devoted to Frederick’s sexuality (it’s “almost certain” that he was “primarily homosexual” with “possible homosexual relationships”), bitch please! Jake O’Hare’s Frederick nails a sonorous aristocratic quality that frequently borders on arrogance, and pairs supremely well with Tommy Papaioannou’s Katte. Kara Taylor Alberts impresses as Voltaire, Frederick’s frenemy, and there’s a highly amusing directorial touch with a pair of portraits that is still making me chuckle now.