Peter Ormerod reviews King John, presented by the RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford
What was it that led the RSC to stage a play concerning a turmoil-gripped nation beset by a fractious relationship with Europe and ruled by man desperate for power?
Hmm. The Stratford company can be a bit, shall we say, sur le nez at times. So it is relief and a joy to report that this is no preachy exercise in narrow didacticism, but a peppy, exuberant and vivacious night at the theatre with moments of great depth and poignancy. It is masterly in conception and execution.
There is usually a reason why some Shakespeare plays are performed rarely. It's that they are often not especially good. So Eleanor Rhode deserves great plaudits for her efforts here; she has long been an expert in revivifying neglected works, displaying a keen sense for what strengths they possess. King John in itself may not be a particularly great piece, but Rhode makes a virtue of its complexity and messiness, finding a kernel of humanity that casts the abundant hubris and vainglorious strutting in a suitably damning light.
This production should serve as a lesson for the RSC in how boldness of presentation and casting can, when blended with discipline, make theatre soar. It is suffused with a conviction and intelligence that saves its most daring moments from lurching into crassness. Any show that gets through a food fight and a WWE-style bout with its dignity intact is doing something very right.
King John is presented here as a play of two strikingly different halves. The first is, for the most part, great fun. It is set in the swinging London of the '60s, expertly evoked by Jackie Orton's immaculate costumes and Will Gregory's piquant score of slinky Soho jazz-pop. King John is hungover, so cracks a raw egg into a glass of tomato juice and necks it. As an opening, it's as bracing and arresting as the drink itself. It emerges that the royal family tree has become a rather tangled and gnarly thing, and various characters declare their rights to the throne. It is all a tad bewildering, but the intricacies perhaps matter less than the general sense of disarray. Wit and humour abound, and there is an ingenious visual joke involving balloons as a wedding feast dissolves into a huge scrap. Those with front-row seats may be advised not to wear their best clothes.
The second half feels in some way like a hangover in itself. The colour and showiness of war and conflict make way for the truth of their human consequences. King John sees his young nephew, Arthur, as a rival; John's aide Hubert is given the job of burning out the boy's eyes. It is a compelling and disturbing scene, and here seems to act as the play's emotional and moral fulcrum as the innocent child asks: "Have you the heart?" That the two halves cohere so well, despite their contrast, is testament to the skill of Rhodes and her team.
Performances are strong throughout. The RSC's gender-blind approach to casting means this King John is played by Rosie Sheehy, but the production treats this with a welcome matter-of-factness, the script (male pronouns and all) remaining unchanged. Sheehy's portrayal is by turns bolshy and needy, a king wearing a crown but never quite seeming in control. Ethan Phillips as Arthur gives a performance remarkable in its assured depiction of naivety. His mother, Constance, is played by Charlotte Randle with a twisted but sincere maternal devotion. Michael Abubakar shows star quality as the playful and sharp Bastard, Philip Faulconbridge, while Katherine Pearce's sassy imperiousness as Cardinal Pandulph strikes initially as comical before growing darker as the play progresses. Nadi Kemp-Sayfi is heartbreaking and potent as John's niece Blanche, and Hubert's torn loyalties are evident in a finely measured performance by Tom McCall. It is one of those productions though where everyone involved deserves great credit, not least designer Max Johns and lighting designer Lizzie Powell, who have crafted scenes of spectacle and subtlety.
There is barely a dull moment here. The characters and story are not among Shakespeare's best-known, but Rhodes and her company make them matter. There is a sense of people with awesome power and wealth but with no idea what to do with it, other than to pursue more of both. The boy Arthur is the soul of a soulless world. We would all do well to ponder his question.
* King John runs at the Swan Theatre until March 21 2020 and will be broadcast to cinemas on April 29. Visit rsc.org.uk/king-john to book.