Pricked out: Critic explores sexuality and Shakespeare in new play

Theatre critics are notorious for their sharp wit and acerbic style. Writers such as Michael Billington of The Guardian and Ben Brantley of the New York Times are known for their reluctance to take prisoners.  

It takes a brave critic to take up a pen and write a play, knowing it will be judged according to the high standards they themselves have demanded of others.

Nicholas De Jongh reviewed productions for The Guardian for 20 years before moving to the The London Evening Standard. He retired in 2009.

Now a new work by De Jongh is set to play at the King’s Head, beginning next week and directed by Matthew Gould. The topic this time is the Bard, but not like you have seen him before.

In less than a year he had written a play, Plague Over Water, which was staged at Finborough Theatre in Earl’s Court. It received glowing reviews – the critic had successfully transitioned from scholar to creative.

The original work dealt with the arrest of actor John Gielgud for cottaging in 1953. At that time Gielgud dominated British theatre alongside Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson as ‘The Holy Trinity’.

It was a sell out and in 2009 the production transferred to the West End.

“magic, realistic comedy”

The story starts in Dorset in 2016. Two men meet on a beach with no recollection of who they are or where they have come from. It seems they may have known each other a very long time ago.

But Pricked Out is not about Dorset, but about sexuality and Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare’s sexuality is hotly contested. He was married to Anne Hathaway and had three children, that much is clear. But many of his sonnets – notably ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ – are about men.

History, and the English curriculum taught in schools, tends to skip over this conundrum and bury it deep under questions about authorship and theories concerning whether Sir Francis Bacon, or even his contemporary Christopher Marlowe, in fact wrote the Shakespeare canon.

Some 126 of his poems appear to be addressed a young man know as ‘Fair Lord’ or ‘Fair Youth’. If such a love interest existed, there is no indication of who he may have been. The most popular candidate is Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton; Shakespeare’s patron and a notoriously handsome character.

De Jongh calls Pricked Out a “magic, realistic comedy” which deals with the much overlooked evidence that, for a time, Shakespeare was in love with a man.

The play, which includes Daniel Donsky as gay Elizabethan poet Barnfield, begins its run on 25 March.

After spending a career watching Shakespeare from the best seats at press showings, De Jongh will present his own take on a icon at a theatre known for groundbreaking, intimate work.


  • Pricked Out runs from 25-29 March at the King’s Head, 115 Upper Street