The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 12th July, 2012
Maria Aberg’s production transforms the Swan Theatre into a function room at a hotel. The cast is dressed to party in a kind of corporate, contemporary way. A net holds a huge number of colourful balloons against the back wall – the greatest tension in this show is wondering when exactly those balloons will be released to flood the stage.
The play begins with the Bastard (Pippa Nixon) picking out Land of Hope and Glory on a ukulele and inviting the audience to sing along. Songs feature heavily in this version. At one point – the union of Blanche of Spain and Lewis of France – we are suddenly hurled into My Best Friend’s Wedding, as King John leads the company in a spirited version of Say A Little Prayer. The happy couple’s first dance is lifted directly from Dirty Dancing. Interesting, I thought: King John as chick-flick…
The mood changes upon the arrival of Pandulph. The Pope’s Legate. Played by Paola Dionisotti, this is an understated but high status performance – in the world of this play, women have access to positions of power and can be just as ruthless as the men. It’s not so much a feminist stance as a neutralising of gender.
Pandulph is swift to urge war between the newly-united nations. Both sides are up for it and so, among the discarded champagne bottles and party favours, battle ensues. Characters stagger on with blood-smeared arms and faces. It’s like a fight at a wedding. We’ve all had a bit to drink. Leave it. It’s not worth it…
Alex Waldmann’s John is a likeable if amoral playboy but such is the nature of the piece, this king doesn’t really come across as a tragic figure. Reportedly poisoned by a monk, he suddenly breaks out into a dance routine that is startling. He is trying to keep the party going, fighting against physical agony and decline – but the party has been over since the start of the second half when the balloons flood the stage and stay there for the rest of the piece, providing a distraction for those members of the audience who see fit to bat them back onto the stage. The balloons having served their purpose undermine the drama of the events that follow.
Pippa Nixon is a passionate Bastard, mocking the nobles, but the most affecting performances come from those with whom she interacts. Sandra Duncan, as the Bastard’s mother, quickly overcomes the laughter provoked by her arrival in motorcycle leathers and baby pink crash helmet, to deliver a touching confession. Jacob Mauchlen as doomed Prince Arthur is excellent, delivering his speeches clearly and poignantly – you believe it when the Bastard’s heart is touched (past productions have used boy actors who make you want to silence them yourself!) The wonderful John Stahl is an avuncular French King and Siobhan Redmond is underused as Elinor, John’s mother.
Much as I was engaged by some of the ideas in this production, what I found annoying, frustrating and downright infuriating was a disregard for basic stagecraft that ruined the show for me. With this kind of set-up, a thrust stage with the audience on three sides, you expect, wherever you’re sitting, to see the actors’ backs from time to time. It’s the nature of the beast. The director should seek to ‘share the backs’ in a democratic manner. What you don’t expect is for characters, onlookers to the action, to be placed downstage for the entirety of scenes, hiding what’s happening centre stage. This happens too many times. Hardly a scene went by where I didn’t find myself staring at someone’s shoulder blades, wishing they would bloody well shift. I’ve never experienced this frustration before, and I’ve had seats in all areas of that theatre.
So, while the actors are giving high quality performances they are undermined by inconsiderate and irritating blocking. It doesn’t matter how clever the production ideas may be – if the audience can’t see them, you may as well perform in a blackout.