KING JOHN till 10 October

KING JOHN: William Shakespeare
(Complete Works Festival)
Swan Theatre: Runs 3h, one interval, till 10 October
Review: Rod Dungate, 3 August 2006

Fascinating; not easy going, but worth making the effort
This is not a readily accessible play, and Josie Rourke does not go out of her way to make it easy. What she and her team do, though, is to present a committed, intelligent version. If we, in the audience, are prepared to make the effort (and why shouldn’t we be expected to?) there is on offer an absorbing production.

Shakespeare sets out to examine a turbulent time in British history; a time in which power shifted back and forth between what looks to us as France and England but which was really shifting allegiances between powerful people – notions of French and English were less to the fore. What we see is the power broking in progress, as it happens. It’s disturbing to see such major decisions made in a moment, on a whim or the chance emergence of an idea. Of course Shakespeare is dramatising these events for us, but the truth is decisions were made by individuals. A hugely powerful figure among these, happily creating conflict to pursue his own designs, is the Pope, too – represented by his Cardinal.

Headed up by Richard McCabe as King John, there appears a modern, cynical approach to this – a valid comment on our own times. McCabe excitingly walks a tightrope between cynicism and passion; it’s almost as if King John wants to appear not to care while in fact he cares deeply. Rourke and McCabe see the King making one fatal mistake – attempting to murder the child, Arthur, whom John sees as a threat to his throne. From this point on, as everything collapses around the King, McCabe drops the cynicism and slowly disintegrates.

The play, particularly in this production is strongly anti-war. The effect is achieved by the dignity given to individual deaths – here we have people not territories.

There are a host of terrific performances. Joseph Millson draws everything from the role of Philip Faulconbridge; friend to John. It’s a great acting role, chance for bluster, comedy, high passion and quiet sensitivity. Millson doesn’t miss a trick. Strong women’s roles too – absorbing for the power they wield. Exciting appearances from Sorcha Cusack (Queen Eleanor) and Tamsin Greig (Constance, Arthur’s mother.)

The young Arthur plays a pivotal role in the story. Ralph Davis (playing the role on the night I saw it) acts with great confidence and style. Sam Cox plays Hubert, the King’s servant and keeper of Arthur; Cox and Davis create a lovely relationship that easily sustains the cusp torture scene.

I’m not a great believer in watching Shakespeare’s early plays in order to see how he develops; but in this production, Rourke’s clarity means you can’t help doing it. Here are eyes going to be poked out – but for (cheap?) pathos rather than intense drama; here is rhetoric – but clunky and showy, rather than for passion. It’s fascinating.

King John: Richard McCabe
Arthur: Ralph David/ Jamie Thomas
Queen Eleanor: Sorcha Cusack
Earl of Pembroke: Jonny Weir
Earl of Salisbury: Patrick Robinson
Earl of Essex: Adam Rayner
Soldier in the English Court: Sam O’Mahony-Adams
Chatillon: Steven Beard
Philip Faulconbridge: Joseph Millson
Robert Faulconbridge: Simon Bubb
Lady Faulconbridge: Eliza Hunt
James Guerney: John Heffernan
Constance: Tamsin Greig
King Philip of France: Nicholas Day
Lewis the Dauphin: Rupert Evans
The Count Melun: Jamie Ballard
French Soldier: Shane Frater
French Herald: Geoffrey Lumb
Archduke of Austria: Leon Tanner
Austrian Soldier: Christopher Davies
Austrian Soldier: John Heffernan
Hubert: Sam Cox
Blanche: Morven Christie
English Soldier: Sam O’Mahony-Adams
English Soldier: Simon Bubb
English Herald: Curtis Flowers
Cardinal Pandulph: David Fielder
Monks: Simon Bubb, Christopher Davies, Shane Frater, John Heffernan
Executioners: Steven Beard, Shane Frater
Peter of Pomfret: Christopher Davies
English Messenger: Sam O’Mohony-Adams
French Messenger: Geoffrey Lumb
Prince Henry: Charles Hamblett/ James Parris
Isabella of Angouleme: Amy Brown

Directed by: Josie Rourke
Designed by: Peter McKintosh
Lighting Designed by: Neil Austin
Music by: Jocelyn Pook
Sound Designed by: Christopher Shuff
Movement by: Dominic Leclerc
Fights by: Terry King
Assistant Director: Alex Sims
Company Voice Work: Ellen Newman and Lyn Darnley

2006-08-05 10:35:34

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