What: King John by William Shakespeare
When: October 2019
Who: Royal Shakespeare Company
Where: The Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
Three plays? No, just one.
Are you sure? Well, yes as much as I can be sure about anything to do with this production.
But whatever we say, we have to say that the production is an untidy mess.
I’m guessing that there were parts of this play that were meant to surprise but the only thing that is shocking is how badly put together the whole thing is.
I was no fan of the last RSC production of King John back in 2012:
But on the whole, this makes looks that look so much the better.
Within the play we have what one enthusiastic visitor, in the Gents at half-time, described as a dance-off (or several) between the French and English characters. Actors in 60s attire dancing to music that sounded more like the 1980s. Imagine “Hair” or Roger Moore attending a disco in an old episode of the Saint or the Persuaders. Yes, the dancing was that bad, the music was worse.
Then, there was a lot of the speech within the scenes which was largely delivered in a straightforward, dramatic tone that captured the tragic spirit of the play.
And finally, there were characters who were playing this whole tragedy for laughs, the most obvious being Katherine Pearce and her patent leather handbag as Cardinal Pandulph. In the play, this character should hold the balance of power as all the nations involved seek to please Rome and the Pope. Instead, the character minces around speaking in a Mancunian or Liverpudlian accent (I’m not sure which) and we are given no reason why King John (Rosie Sheehy), the King of France (David Birrell) or Austria (Richard Pryal) should be in the least concerned about Pandulph’s opinion.
In case you hadn’t got my impression the first time, this is a shocking mess. The director seems to have been well out of her depth.
The kindest thing that can be said is that it is a very different production than the last time the RSC brought this Shakespearean tragedy out of mothballs. Then the play began in Act 3. At least this time it has the decency to start in Act 1, albeit with a speech from Chatillon (Nicholas Gerard-Martin) where the actor sounds like he doesn’t exactly understand the meaning of the words he speaks. Perhaps this is why the same actor turns up a little later boxing in an England vest. Who knows? Last time, Robert Faulconbridge’s character was played by a woman and presented as a woman. This time King John is played by a woman and presented as a man.
This I think was meant to be the big surprise – that King John and Pandulph are both played by female actors. As above, King John is still a male character. With Pandulph, on the other hand, I am not sure whether the character is meant to be male or female, although the dialogue is not changed. However, there is no surprise here because every RSC production in the last two or three years has been knee-deep in gender-switched casting and frankly it just becomes tiresome rather than novel.
Ms Sheehy handles the role of King John quite well, but I suspect she will be remembered as yet another female actor who played a male character in this curious period of the RSC’s history.
As well, as the dodgy dancing music and dancing, we have to deal with less-than-admirable fight scenes. Traditional period fights and modern boxing, albeit bare-knuckled. They provide just another opportunity to step out of the flow of the play and get some of the audience laughing and waving about those over-sized foam hands that you get at American sporting venues.
Can I complain a little more? Prince Henry who was presented quite well in 2012, is entirely absent from the play here. Hubert (Tom McCall) who was entirely absent in 2012 2012, is returned to the Dramatis Personae. This is a key point as he is the character who is given the responsibility of getting rid of Arthur (various child actors), the nephew of the King and eventually allows him to escape rather than taking out his eyes or killing him. Mr McCall is one of the few high points of the production and handles his role with passion and integrity.
If I was someone who had come to the play unaware of the storyline, I would have left baffled. Some scenes are missing. The great mystery for those watching is how Arthur dies. His ghost appears, with a damaged eye suggesting that either Hubert or someone else had carried out the King’s commission. In the Shakespearean plotline, Arthur is accidentally killed when escaping from the palace and jumping from a wall. This is difficult to stage, but some attempt needs to present it.
Michael Abubakar as the Bastard, is much, much better than Pippa Nixon was in that role in 2012. Charlotte Randle as Arthur’s mother, Constance is believable.
In the scene where a fight breaks out at the wedding feast of Blanche and Lewis, the Dauphin, helium balloons at the back of the stage are rearranged from “Just Married” to “Just Die” by Constance. In one evening performance, even this went wrong and the balloons ended up reading “Just Mdie”.
That about sums it all up.
Food is thrown around at the wedding feast. Most of the cast leave the stage, at the end, with egg on their face.