Tag Archives: King John

A Reign of Two Halves

KING JOHN

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 30th October, 2019

 

There’s an undeniably 1960s vibe to Eleanor Rhode’s production of this lesser-known history play.  Max Johns’s design puts the characters in sharp suits and polo-neck sweaters, dandy two-pieces, and East End gangster-ish fur coats.  This is the world of One Man, Two Guvnors with a touch of the Krays.  Will Gregory’s original compositions do much to enforce the period, with arrangements that are reminiscent of Quincy Jones (think Austin Powers theme!) and classics like Green Onions.  So, it all looks great and sounds great, and they have the dance moves down pat.  But…

The first half heightens the humour.  Rhode delivers up a black comedy with a couple of rather gruesome touches.  In the title role we have Rosie Sheehy, a principal boy (evoking fond memories of Pippa Nixon’s female Bastard in a previous production).  The gender-blind casting emphasises the youthfulness of the King and later, his unmanliness.  John is a weak king, but Sheehy’s portrayal of that weakness is strong – if you see what I mean.  Dressed in pyjamas and velvet suits, this John is a slightly Bohemian, somewhat cocky playboy, a 60s rock-star/poet/playboy.

Sheehy is surrounded by other strong performers, notable among whom are the excellent Bridgitta Roy as Queen Elinor,  John’s authoritative mother; Zara Ramm impresses in a brief appearance as Lady Faulconbridge; Tom McCall’s faithful Hubert’s loyalty is not without its sinister side; and Brian Martin’s Lewis the Dauphin would not be out of place, torturing narks in a lock-up.  Michael Abubakar’s Bastard (Scottish accent, red brothel-creepers) is indeed a cheeky bastard, but he seems a little side-lined at times.

The role of little prince Arthur is quite a large part for a child actor, and tonight it’s the turn of Ethan Phillips to elicit our sympathies.  He does a grand job, togged up like our own Prince George, and I like Rhode’s idea of having him appear ghost-like, rather than as a corpse.  In fact, it is through his Arthur that we come to regard John as a villain – not quite of Richard III proportions, but even so.  Incidentally, John’s protestant rant against Catholicism puts him ahead of his time (or hearkens back to Henry VIII, depending on your perspective!).  Katherine Pearce’s Cardinal Pandulph is a camp delight if a little one-note – but then, I suppose that represents the unwavering nature of the Church.

To my mind, it is Charlotte Randle’s passionate Lady Constance, righteous in her grief, who gives the pivotal performance of the production, growing from annoying guest who won’t shut up about it, to a genuinely moving portrayal of emotional disturbance.  After her hair-tearing scene, the production is never quite the same again.

Rhode gives us lots of fun ideas to make the action accessible, even if we’re not always entirely sure who everyone is.  In the second half, the comedy is elbowed in favour of the darkness and the politicising, a tonal mismatch that doesn’t quite gel.  Perhaps the inclusion of more medieval motifs would marry the two sections, as characters get medieval with each other.  This is very much a game of two halves.

I find I have no sympathy for John’s messy demise in a tin bath.  Instead, it’s a relief to be rid of a weak leader.  The play points out – as if we aren’t painfully aware these days – that weakness at the top brings chaos everywhere.

King John production photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Steve Tanner _c_ RSC_295649

Rosie Sheehy as King John (Photo: Steve Tanner (c) RSC)

 

 


Dancing King

KING JOHN
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.