Thursday, 19 May 2016

Review King John


King John
by William Shakespeare

Game of Thrones

TLT and her loyal motorised lieutenant made all haste to the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames to see King John, a Shakespeare we had never seen before, at the Rose Theatre.

Even before reading the programme after seeing the play, and finding it was the first Shakespeare to be filmed in 1899, both TLT and her faithful equerry agreed King John has all the elements of a stonking melodrama and political mini-series!

The weak and vacillating king (Jamie Ballard) is dependent on advisers, especially his mother, veteran schemer but still careful Elinor of Aquitaine (Maggie Steed). But the King when left to make decisions on his own, in an effort to stand on his own feet, takes a brutal and murderous misstep.

The victim of this, young boy Arthur (played on press night by Sebastian Croft), a prince by demeanour and blood, pleading for his life reduces the would-be assassin (a bluntly honourable Stephen Kennedy) to tears. 

Arthur's tragic mother Constance (Lisa Dillon) is a power player for her son but ultimately driven mad by grief and grievance. Meanwhile swashbuckling bastard son Philip Faulconbridge (Howard Charles) of Richard the Lionheart is a cynical but heartbroken looker on,  participant and commentator.

This is a production of great clarity in what could be otherwise a confusing play. The nearest we have to a hero is Faulconbridge. Yet this doesn't quite fit and perhaps the clue is in the title of a play upon which Shakespeare drew heavily, some would say rewrote in a "twice told tale": The Troublesome Reign of King John.

For this, it struck us, is a situation tragedy - the troublesome situation of "that England hedged in with the main/The water-walled bulwark" plagued by uncertainty over the throne and land rights. 

And it's rather exciting, mined for humour as well in Trevor Nunn's well-paced (even though it should be said approximately three hours long) production.

Don't look for the Magna Carta though in Shakespeare's version, although perhaps a cloth underfoot rolled out like a parchment at the beginning is a twenty first century gesture towards it.

But this is Shakespeare at his most politic, meanng the play does not disturb the Elizabethan world order, the divine right to rule of the Protestant Tudors implicitly compared with the chaos of the Plantagenet Catholics. 

Nevertheless it is this which gives the play its modern feel. The shifting alliances and plotting of the unstable in power have a relevant resonance. Pandulph the Papal legate (Burt Caesar) has all the deviousness and diplomacy of a corrupt FIFA official, whose European power politics on behalf of the Pope sets off family rifts and wars between English and French.

A seemingly straightforward Globe-like stage with scaffolding to insert more levels is given a sense of time travelling and mash up with two video screens, one on each side (set and costumes by Mark Friend with concept design by John Napier). Describing it makes it sound more clunky than it is for the audience, as the actors' phrase goes, caught up "in the moment".

The screens show stills of stone turrets, discarded amour on a desolate battlefield, medieval illuminated manuscript illustrations and paintings, stained glass figures and as the King grows more fragile, delicate blossoming trees.

There is also sparing but effective use of video - a kingly debate flashes on the screens in close up well serving a play full of competing claims. Public events are publicly broadcast and the battles are in stark black and white like some Eisenstein silent film.

An otherwise plot driven artificial incident to modern eyes,  yet, in our modern times, also too horribly true, is shown as a vertigo black silhouetted figure falling from on high.

The rhyming couplets rang out clearly and every character carried their weight in the play with the, again, straightforward but ratcheting-up-the-tension use of sound effects (Fergus O'Hare) - the drum roll, the ticking clock - and music (composer Corin Buckeridge).

Ballard's King John has stepped straight out of medieval painting with his pigeon chested bearing. Gradually as his power waxes and wanes, his nervous gestures augment and his mouth is increasingly down-turned in the manner of the best silent films. This style suits the build up to the supernatural visions of the play  but his end, in a wheelchair, drooling, also had a touching quality.

The Prince Arthur  (he's the son of John's elder brother Geoffrey so has a claim to the throne) of Croft also has the touching embarrassment of the boy whose widowed mother is fighting his corner. 

This play also provides some powerful roles for women, seasoned politician Elinor, determined yet doomed Constance and Princess Blanche of Castille (Elizabeth Hopper) who finds herself torn from her nearest family on her wedding day as events,  triggered by Cardinal Pandulph, twist and turn.

All in all, King John proved a compelling and absorbing evening, with every argument over claims to the throne, the possession of mainland France territories, the plotting and the scheming followed intently by TLT and her trusty mechanized steed. So for an evening of national and international upheaval a jousting green light   

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