THEATRE REVIEW: King John, Rose Theatre

running until 5 June

The cast of King John (c) Mark Douet
The cast of King John (c) Mark Douet

This production of King John marks number 36 out of 37 Shakespearean plays for ex-RSC director Trevor Nunn: surprisingly it will be the much-loved A Midsummer Night’s Dream that finally completes the list later this year. It’s a cynical but not unlikely supposition that it is this ticking off of the canon that has inspired this revival, more than the text itself. King John is a difficult play to love: the title character is neither impressively heroic nor thrillingly villainous; the English and French royals can’t seem to make their mind up whether to fight each other or marry each other; and there’s a confusing subplot about the Pope. Nunn acknowledges its difficulties in the director’s notes: “There is no point in denying that there are problems with the text that has come down to us. The play contains some of the most original and genre challenging writing, but in the last third in particular, there seem to be missing passages and unexplained developments”. Nunn has dealt with these by adding in extra material to plug the gaps, taken from a much earlier work that may (or may not) have been penned by Shakespeare too, but contains much of the necessary narrative source.

Despite rewrites, and Nunn’s comparisons to modern politics, this feels like a safe revival, and particularly in the first half it feels emotionally distant. Mark Friend’s costumes are rich and beautifully-executed, but all very clean and pressed even after battle; Constance (Lisa Dillon) tears her hair down in grief, but it remains glossy and curled; even the requisite fanfares sound flat and synthetic. There is a sheen over the whole thing that makes the fourth wall feel thicker, and prevents us from connecting too deeply. To reinforce the ‘relevance’ for the modern day, each time characters make public speeches they are recorded and live-streamed onto screens at either side of the stage. The screens are also used to denote the location of each scene (moodily-lit battlements, stained glass windows, tents) and to fill in the off-stage battle scenes. Yet they are superfluous: I would rather the scenes were set using lighting or soundscapes than the slightly naff TV screens that are too small to have a great impact and feel incongruous with the historical authenticity of the rest of the staging.

Nonetheless, the cast are adept at drawing out the humour in Act I and slowly we begin to find our way into the tricky play. Shakespeare proves himself, as ever, the king of both the one-liner and the soliloquy and the cast including Jamie Ballard (King John), Dale Rapley (King of France) and Carmen Rodriguez (Lady Faulconbridge) make the most of the lighter moments. When things turn nastier, the insults flying between Queen Elinor (Maggie Steed) and Constance (Dillon) are fiery and a joy to watch, while Joe Bannister (Lewis, the Dauphin) makes an impressive turnaround from nervous youth to impassioned, arrogant leader. Yet at times words get lost, particularly in the case of Steed and the young Harry Marcus (Prince Arthur), who otherwise gives a secure and confident performance throughout his emotionally challenging scenes.

Howard Charles as Philip (c) Mark Douet
Howard Charles as Philip (c) Mark Douet

Ballard has the most difficult job in engaging us with this petulant, slippery king. Like so many of Shakespeare’s leaders, he is clearly not cut out for the top job. His courtiers laugh at his feeble jokes only when prompted, he defies Rome only to come crawling back later, and he impetuously rushes into war and then peace (and then war again) with France. Moreover, he’s aware of his own instability on the throne, insisting that he is crowned twice to reinforce his right to reign. Shakespeare condenses John’s reign and misses out key moments (Magna Carta, anyone?), leaving the character feeling a little sketchy. Ballard makes a good attempt at carving out the character’s path, but at times his flippancy doesn’t fit with the more serious themes of the scene; later, he is more sympathetic as the consequences of his actions become clear, and his impending fall from grace helps Ballard create moments of pathos. John is shown up by everyone around him: his more regal mother, his tougher courtiers, his impressive enemies and his courteous young nephew, Arthur, his biggest threat.

The stand-out of the show is undoubtedly Howard Charles as Philip Faulconbridge (‘The Bastard’), who goes a long way to rescuing this production from mediocrity. His swagger and confidence is balanced by his mastery of the Bard’s dialogue and the stage is lit up every time he appears. He shows a ruthless streak but also fierce loyalty, and his background machinations and striking speeches becomes the life-blood of the play. Also impressing is Stephen Kennedy as Hubert, whose moral dilemma on being ordered to kill the young prince is moving, only topped by his relief at not carrying out the act, and grief when the boy’s eventual fate is revealed.

King John will never become a favourite of the Shakespearean canon, and needs imaginative direction and a sterling cast to carry it off. Nunn’s version gets halfway there, with some strong performances and well-rendered aesthetics. Yet it is undermined by a muddled tone and incongruous attempts at modernity, which prevent the audience becoming fully absorbed in this revival.

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