BWW Review: KING JOHN, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
We're in a mess. There seems to be no way out of these tensions between England and Europe and tempers are running high, intemperate language abounds and England's leader seems at a loss as to how to move forward. The year is... 1199.
King John is one of Shakespeare's lesser performed plays and one can see why. The drama, and there is much of it including plenty of the rabble-rousing battles that thrilled Victorians, is often lost in the political machinations between the shifting loyalties and alliances.
It's as if the showrunners on Game of Thrones - and this play is very Game of Thronesish - looked at GEORGE RR MARTIN's text and said that what it really needed is a few more minor characters and a few more plot strands.
John, having succeeded his brother, Richard the Lionheart (Richard Cœur de Lion really, given how much of his life was spent abroad) is dealing with a disputatious France, a meddling Papal emissary and his own doubts about exactly how ruthless he should be. He trusts nobody - and that includes himself. "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown", as ever, fits Shakespeare's purpose.
Eleanor Rhode has set her production in the mid-1960s, with designer Max Johns getting the vibe so right that I half-expected Andy Warhol to turn up dressed as Pope (which he must have done at some point, surely?) There's precious little Summer of Love in sight though, fight directors, Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown ensuring that the actors regularly give it to each other with both barrels.
Rosie Sheehy plays John with sensitivity, bringing out the insecurity that haunts him, but, I confess, I found the gender-blind casting a little distracting in this instance. Primogeniture was critical in this world (bizarrely, it still is) and the rhythms and cadences of the royal speeches reflect that. It also changes the dynamic between John and his mother, the formidable Queen Elinor, played with icy resolve by Bridgitta Roy.
That said, there's enough testosterone gushing elsewhere to satisfy anyone, as bickering turns to bloodshed - even a food fight - at the drop of a "my liege".
Michael Abubakar leads the way on the aggression, his gobby The Bastard (and he is a gobby bastard) never taking a backward step, ambition bubbling over into folly as it so often does. So too David Birrell's King of France, channeling Brian Blessed's bluster as he faces off against his English rival, no line knowingly undersold.
It's not an environment in which anyone dared entreat "Women and Children First!", as John's niece, Blanche (a cocky then tearful Nadi Kemp-Sayfi) is simply traded to France to bind - ineffectively, inevitably - the Houses together. It's brutal and cruel and dehumanising - and it shows exactly the role of women, unless, like Elinor, they had the wit and single-mindedness to broker their heir-making into a proxy power.
Which leads to the best scenes. Constance (Charlotte Randle, desperate) wants her son, Arthur, to be king - dangerous for Arthur. The assassination scene in which Hubert (a superb Tom McCall) battles with his conscience, a noble and angelic Arthur before him (Ethan Phillips, also very good) is a marvellous play within a play. So shines a good deed in a naughty world indeed...
Despite the all-action approach, the music and more fights than you'd expect in the Bigg market on a Friday night, keeping track of shifting alliances over the course of three hours is a challenge. That said, with Katherine Pearce's Cardinal Pandulph providing some much needed comic moments, it's just about doable. And what is the Royal Shakespeare Company for if it ignores some of Shakey's less accessible works? It can't all be fairy queens and puckish sprites can it?
Photo Steve Tanner