KING JOHN: William Shakespeare
RSC, Swan, Stratford-Upon-Avon
Runs: 2h 35m, one interval, till 15 September (in rep)
Review: Alexander Ray, 09 05 12
Here’s a triumph of a production.
KING JOHN’s an intriguing play; not part of the great history cycles that tell of the making of Britain, it tells of an earlier history; it’s a deeply political play. Talk of England and France, and England’s determination not be conquered would have resonated with the Elizabethan audience well enough, but it’s the portrayal of the war-mongering machinations of the Pope (in the key character of his legate Pandulph) that would have really got them going.
Maria Aberg’s significant achievement in her production is that, by making a couple of strategic decisions, she has revisioned the politics of the play. The result is a play in which the debates are totally, thrillingly clear and one-hundred percent absorbing. In achieving this, Aberg is, of course, greatly aided by a passionately engaged and talented company.
The play is built around the succession to the throne from Henry II (and Richard) to, either dead Geoffrey’s son, Arthur, or John (technically usurping.) France hovers threateningly over all. The Pope hovers even over all that, even more threateningly. But the story is told through the character of the Bastard, an apparent illegitimate son of Richard’s.
And here’s Aberg’s most brilliant stroke – make the Bastard a woman. The entire axis of the play seems to shift. Power seems to lie with the women – Bastard, Queen Elinor, Constance (Arthur’s mother.) And Pandulph (a woman Cardinal) – a second gender change. These women are the war-mongers, and how we dislike them for it. But only at the beginning . . . As we listen our allegiances shift, we become convinced, frequently, by the arguments – though Pandulph never becomes anything other than the villain.
This is tremendous.
Pippa Nixon’s Bastard could not be better played – her debates clear, her personality infectious. Alex Waldmann’s King John has an engagingly careless laddishness about it. And the physicality of their relationship can be taken to a much greater emotional level than would be possible with two men, without sending out a quite different message. At their highest levels of emotion their playing is wonderful.
Paola Dionisotti’s Pandulph is riveting. Dionisotti underplays the character, her whole figure is slight, her voice quiet but coloured so subtly the air turns to ice around her. Siobhan Redmond’s Elinor is striking in every way. This is a strong company (talent clearly not mined in their partner production, RICHARD III).
Naomi Dawson’s designs are bold but at every point add to the layering of meanings.
King John: Alex Waldmann
Queen Elinor: Siobhan Redmond
Blanche of Spain: Natalie Klamar
Prince Henry: Harry Payne, Pascal Vogiaridis
Pembroke: Neal Barry
Salisbury: David Fielder
Essex: Joshua Jenkins
The Bastard: Pippa Nixon
Robert Faulconbridge: Iain Batchelor
Lady Faulconbridge: Sandra Duncan
Arthur, Duke of Brittany: Matthew Hayhurst, Jacob Mauchlen, Nicholas Mullen
Constance: Susi Trayling
King Philip of France: john Stahl
Lewis the Dauphin: Oscar Pearce
Austria: Mark Jax
Chatillon: Edmund Kingsley
Melun: Mark Holgate
Pandulph: Paola Dionisotti
Executioners: Simon Coombs, Jim Kitson
Messenger: Simon Coombs
Wedding Guest/ Citizen: Mariam Bell
Directed by: Maria Aberg
Designed by: Naomi Dawson
Lighting Designed by: David Holmes
Sound Designed by: Carolyn Downing
Movement by: Ayse Tashkiran
Company Dramaturg: Jeanie O’Hare
Company Text and Voice Work by: Stephen Kemble
Assistant Director: Sophie Ivatts
Musical Director: John Woolf
Casting by: Hannah Miller, Jeanine Snape
Children’s Casting by: Barbara Roberts