Royal Shakespeare Company, The Swan Theatre, Saturday 2nd November 2019
As soon I saw King John stumble bleary eyed across the stage after a hard night’s partying, mixing a raw egg into a tumbler of tomato juice, stirring it with stick of celery and downing the drink in one, I knew I was in for a theatrical treat.
Tapestry by Ellie Foreman-Peck and Max Johns
On this occasion, Rosie Sheehy was indisposed, so the King was played by Nadi Kemp-Sayfi, another fine actress in her debut season with the RSC, and she was perfect for the role too. Taking her place as Blanche was Sarah Agha, who also brilliantly delivered far more than the programme had her down for. I’m looking forward to seeing Rosie Sheehy in another role in the future, but for me the short-notice re-casting turned out to be a fantastic opportunity and a highly fortuitous occasion for all present.
There is a scene half way through where the King appears resplendent in a gold robe, looking down on all before her. A moment of true majesty. A very fine King John, fully entitled to the throne of England. Bite me! A bit cut throat at times, evil in the extreme when she commands the execution of her young nephew, but it really felt like it had to be done. This King belongs in a twelfth century episode of Scandal, with sinister shades, snappy moves, the customary bunch of hired hands, an electrifying score and a wedding cake strewn across the stage. All contrasting perfectly with the chilling atmosphere and the knowledge of thousands of distant human lives being destroyed at the whim of heartless rulers prepared to make widows if that’s what it takes to maintain power.
King John (Rosie Sheehy). Magnificent but absent (image: Steve Tanner, RSC)
Nadi Kemp-Sayfi, in rehearsal. My King John. (image: Sam Allard, RSC)
Robin Hood and Little John riding through the forest: there is none of that. There is also no signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede. So, not a complete history lesson, perhaps thankfully. What we do have is war, and plenty of it. Interrupted by a wedding breakfast which descends into that delightful food fight. The wedding, by the way, is yet another example of Shakespeare’s women being used as chattels to settle patriarchal disputes. How I would have loved to see Blanche launch that shaving foam pie into the face of Louis the Dauphin. But this was Shakespeare, not the Chuckle Brothers.
Having temporarily ceased, the conflict on the battlefield is restarted by Cardinal Pandulph (Katherine Pearce). Hamming it up a little, the Cardinal revels in her own power, first ex-communicating King John, then shattering the fragile truce between England and France, and every time making a humbled ruler kiss her evil hand.
The Cardinal (Katherine Pearce), casting a dark shadow over England and France
(image: RSC Twitter)
The physical fighting for me is not the production’s strength. It must be hard to act out war on stage, but here it seemed a bit stilted and non-committal. I was far more impressed by the war of words, the conflicting claims to the crown of England and the comic spat between the Bastard Son of Richard Coeur de Lyon (Michael Abubakar) and the lion-skin clad Prussian Emperor (Richard Pryal).
For the younger generation, Arthur the boy child (Aaryan Dassaur) used all his innocent charm to save his eyes and his life, and would have grown up far too quickly had he not then tumbled from the ramparts in ritualistic fashion. Arthur is of course at the heart of the power play, which revolves around the question Who has the right to be King of England? And why does he hold court over so many territories in France? And then, when there is peace with the French, why the hell does the Catholic Church have the right to demand bloodshed and destruction?
If you’re looking for a comparison with our own troubled political times, take this line from The Bastard in the final scene:
“This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.”
(Act V, sc vii)
A muddled construction of negatives and regret that could come, perhaps surprisingly, from either side of the current great political divide; foul supporters of Perfidious Albion or the most decent and reasonable of remainers. Everyone wants to claim title to their land!
The Bastard Son (Michael Abubakar) in Lionheart threads (image: Steve Tanner, RSC)
So, this play really does have a striking relevance to today, with all the meddling, hostility and interdependencies at work. But I’m trying hard to concentrate on historical times right now. And next, I’m already planning for more history in the future. Henry VI, all three parts, and then Henry VIII (All Is True) in the 2020/2021 autumn/winter programme. These dramas will, I trust, complete the RSC’s run through of Shakespeare’s first folio.
For now, I highly recommend this rarely performed play, and the spectacular treatment it has received from the RSC. This is an absolute triumph for director Eleanor Rhode and the cast. It’s not one of Shakespeare’s funniest histories and it doesn’t have many classic quotes, but it’s vibrant and startling, makes us better informed about our cultural heritage, challenges our concept of nationality and does actually have some moments of comic genius, if you need some light-hearted relief. Most strikingly, if you like, King John reminds us how fortunate we are not to be engaged in war with Europe nowadays.
One last look at a wonderful piece of art
© Eddie Hewitt 2019
RSC: King John