Stratford Upon Avon
King John: William Shakespeare
RSC, The Swan
Runs: 2h 50m, one interval
Box Office: 01789331111
Review: Rod Dungate, 26th November 2019
Eleanor Rhode’s production of King John, set in 1960s England is a lively and energetic production. However, clarity is sacrificed, particularly in the first half; the production is saved by the second half. Here, characters are enabled to fill out and we are given the opportunity to enter into the world of the play and take part in the debates.
King John is not part of the great cycle of Shakespeare history plays, but sits much earlier back. It examines the precarious state of English succession and power as the royal family squabbles over succession rights – King John or ‘King’ Arthur (King John’s nephew). Women are powerful – in particular Queen Elinor Henry II’s widow, and Arthur’s mother Constance. But it could be argued no figure more powerful than the Pope, seen via the plotting presence of the Pope’s representative, Pandulph. .
Shakespeare, writing in around 1594, may well have been examining the precarious nature of England’s succession and global position under Elizabeth I; this neatly translates to England in the 1960s; and is strengthened with the portrayal of an Irish Dauphin. But the background is complex, and Shakespeare is developing his craft. There are too many characters introduced too quickly for us easily to follow the story. Rhode’s chosen showy style does nothing to help with clarity and storytelling. Moreover, the cross gender casting of King John adds nothing, except increase the confusion.
In the first half the strutting and shouting pushes us away from the play; things calm down in the second half and once characters begin to talk, we become engaged.
Rosie Sheehy as King John does well enough with an impossible task. Bridgitta Roy’s Elinor, which should be a towering figure, fails to gain the authority and power required.
Thank goodness for Tom McCall’s Hubert. This is beautifully conceived and delivered – physically and vocally. His ‘execution’ scene with the young Arthur is a remarkable and touching sequence. Charlotte Randle’s Constance also comes into her own in the second half, a powerful mixture of dignity and tragedy. Brian Martin’s Dauphin is a fine combination of youthful energy and authority; he manages his political switches well.
Katherine Pearce’s Pandulph is disappointing. Her Northern accent brings a great freshness to the role, but the power-hungry scheming of the church is never realised. Pearce’s development of character is not helped by her costume from designer Max John.
King John is a tricky play to bring off; Rhode’s makes a great stab at it but the result is ultimately disappointing. It is possibly a terrible thing to say, but I can’t help remembering Maria Aberg’s 2012 production; this was a revelation and still lives with me.
King John: Rosie Sheehy
Queen Elinor: Bridgitta Roy
Arthur, Duke of Brittany: Aaryan Dassur/Ethan Phillips/Gianni Saraceni-Gunner
Constance: Charlotte Randle
Blanche Nadi Kemp-Sayfi
Lady Faulconbridge: Zara Ramm
Robert Faulconbridge: Zed Josef
The Bastard, Phillip Faulconbridge: Micahel Abubakar
Pembroke: John Cummins
Salisbury: Corey Montague-Sholay
Essex: Ali Gadema
Hubert: Tom McCall
King of France: David Birrell
Lewis, The Dauphin: Brian Martin
Chatilion: Nicholas Gerard-Martin
Austria: Richard Pryal
Cardinal Pandulph: Katherine Pearce
Director: Eleanor Rhode
Designer: Max Johns
Lighting Designer: Lizzie Powell
Composer: Will Gregory