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.