By William Shakespeare
Directed by Maria Aberg
Venue: Swan Theatre, Stratford
Date: Thursday 17th May 2012
Controversial! This re-interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s least-loved plays had some interesting ideas and stagings, but ultimately proved to be a triumph of style over substance. The stage was covered in a chain-link carpet in drab brown, with steps at the back and various rectangular blocks around the place for tables, seats, etc. there were potted plants, an art deco sunburst chandelier, and a netted swathe of large balloons above the steps, completely blocking out a neon ‘for God and England’ which appeared once the balloons were released at the start of the second half. This was a sleazy, corrupt, eighties-style country, with everyone out for financial gain and not much else, and lots of strong women pushing the men around. An interesting starting point, but would it bring out aspects of the play we hadn’t experienced before?
Before the play proper, Pippa Nixon, in multi-coloured tights and a short black dress, warmed us up with a shaky rendering of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ on her ukulele. We joined in as best we could, at her insistence, then they started their version of the play itself with the entrance of the king and his court. This opening section was good fun, with Alex Waldmann’s King John a stronger presence than I’ve seen before. With the whole court assembled, he stood on the steps and toyed with them by starting to put the coronet on his own head, then stopping, then actually going through with it. The court was caught mid-bow or courtesy, but then there were cheers and applause. When a man in a pastel pink suit arrived, he was told to wait, and was kept waiting for some time until the king deigned to speak with him. This turned out to be Chatillon – the king read out his name tag in slow syllables before letting it ping back – and the bickering between France and John over the true king of England had begun.
After Chatillon’s departure, while John was giving orders for the church establishments to pay for the expected war, the dispute between two of Robert Falconbridge’s ‘sons’ came before John, only this time the elder ‘son’ was actually a daughter, played by Pippa Nixon. Both Queen Elinor and John registered their recognition of the Bastard’s similarity to Richard Lionheart, although we had nothing to go on, of course. The forthright battling spirit of the Bastard matched well with Elinor’s attitude and added to the play’s emphasis on strong women, but I was concerned at the Bastard’s lack of physical prowess – would she really be able to cut her way through a mass of soldiers? – and the added element of sexual attraction between her and John didn’t help the play at all as far as I was concerned. It might have worked better for me if they’d simply had Pippa playing the Bastard as a man, but perhaps not. Either way, they feminised the language, and although this interpretation conflicts with historical reality, not to mention the text, at least Pippa had one of the clearer deliveries of the evening and her high energy levels helped to keep me awake for most of the performance.
Lady Falconbridge, the Bastard’s mother, arrived by motorbike; for a brief moment I thought it might actually be coming onto the stage, it was so close, but in the end it was just the lady herself in her leathers, and good fun it was too. Then the action moved to the French court, where we met Austria, Arthur and Constance, as well as the French king and the Dauphin. This was where the dialogue started to lose clarity, and although I got the gist I was beginning to miss more than I heard. Added to this problem was the dreadful blocking. From the post-show we learned that the director didn’t bother blocking the scenes. From experience I can safely say that if they don’t block, they will block, and badly too. The effect of this was to cut our view and muffle the sound so that we might as well have been in another theatre for all that we could tell of the performance at times. Not the RSC’s finest hour, and something that could and should be addressed.
I was aware that Constance advised the French king to wait for the ambassador to return before attacking the English-held city in front of them, just in case, only for the ambassador to turn up a few moments later to warn of the impending arrival of the English army. And indeed they did turn up almost immediately, and settled down to a long war of words. At one point, King John made as if to put the coronet on Arthur’s head, but again snatched it away at the last moment and placed it back on his own. Constance, played by Susie Trayling, was another strong performance and also very clear, and I enjoyed the bickering between her and Elinor very much. Elinor produced a will which Constance grabbed, tore and scrunched up before throwing the bits away – I only mention this because there was a lot of that in this production, paper being ripped and/or scrunched up and tossed to one side, leading to an accumulation of debris.
The citizens of Angiers (for so it was, according to the text) appeared around the stage on the first balcony level while John and Phillip made their speeches asking for their support. Two microphones on stands were brought forward, and John did his speech first, followed by Phillip. It was a bit like a reality kingship game show, with the final choice going to the public vote, but there was a twist in this case. Not happy with the citizens’ indecision, and prompted by the Bastard’s fighting talk, Phillip and John agreed to join forces temporarily to destroy Angiers and carry on their own battle afterwards. Only the quick wits of the Angiers delegation prevented this, with their suggestion that Louis the Dauphin should marry Blanche, John’s niece.
The deliberations following this suggestion were nicely done, as far as I could see. Elinor was happy that the union would strengthen John’s claim to the throne, and encouraged him by a look to add Anjou to Blanche’s dowry. She wasn’t so happy about the thirty thousand marks John threw in as well, though. The actual contributions by Louis and Blanche themselves were largely hidden from my view and I couldn’t tell from the delivery what was going on, but it certainly seemed to be the clumsiest wooing ever by a long way. Since Constance wasn’t around to shove her oar in, and only the Bastard was unhappy that the fighting was over before it had begun, they went straight into the wedding ceremony.
Blanche put on her fancy togs at the top of the stairs – 50s pink skirt, socks, high heels – but I couldn’t see what Louis was doing. The microphones were cleared away, and the party began. With the two courts posed together on the steps, the Bastard took a photo, and then the courts froze while the Bastard talked us through the commodity speech – a long time for some of the cast to hold their poses.
After the speech, the action started up again with music and dancing, including a karaoke number from John. He brought a microphone back on and used that – cries of ‘speech’ from the others – but instead he went into an old number, I forget which, and with the rest of the cast joining in it all became a bit rowdy. John even took the microphone off the stand and was holding it out for the audience to sing along. Blanche took the microphone herself and had a go, and then the bride and groom said their vows followed by another slow dance between them which turned into a Dirty Dancing number. With much hilarity, the couple left the stage followed by the rest of the partygoers, leaving an empty stage for Constance to have a rant on. Arthur and Salisbury were there too, of course, but it’s Constance’s big number, and she did it very well. The contrast with the upbeat, high energy party scene was very effective, even more so when the revellers came back on, still in party mode but with extra hats, tinsel and the like. They stopped when they saw Constance, and it was an awkward moment.
The bickering continued, especially between Constance and the king of France, and only stopped when the Pope’s legate, Pandulph, arrived on the upper balcony. Another female version, this Pandulph was played by Paola Dionisotti in a white shirt and smart black trouser suit (well, she is Italian). John’s defiance of the Pope’s instructions (to release the Pope’s chosen Archbishop of Canterbury) led to Pandulph excommunicating him, and the pressure was on Phillip once again to go to war with England. Despite a crafty attempt to manoeuvre the legate into providing a third option, Phillip was faced with the stark choice of being excommunicated himself or fighting John. I’m not sure if the contrasting arguments of Constance and Blanche were cut; if not, they didn’t make much of an impact on me, though I was vaguely aware that Blanche had a difficult choice to make. I assume she went with Louis; again, it wasn’t clear to me.
The next scene had the Bastard coming on stage with a big bag from which she took the head of Austria. She placed the head near the front of the stage, and then the king turned up with young Arthur. Normally Hubert pops up as well at this point, but to save confusing the audience (the other choices were straightforward, were they?) the Bastard took on this role as well. (We women are just so good at multi-tasking.) King John asked the Bastard to take care of Arthur, and a short while later he made it clear exactly what ‘take care of’ meant. Like Richard III, he wants the only other contender for the throne removed before there’s any more trouble. The Bastard was very willing, and agreed immediately out of loyalty to the king rather than any great desire to kill children.
It was during the next scene, which according to my text has a debate among Phillip, Louis, Constance and Pandulph, that I started to lose consciousness. Despite Constance having anger in her grief, she does go on a bit and the later reaches of this scene, after Constance had left, are mostly blank. Apparently Pandulph worked on Louis to make him desire the English throne for himself, through his marriage to Blanche, and we would see the consequences of that later on. For now, it was peaceful slumber, and although I was aware of the change of scene to the Bastard (as Hubert) and Arthur, I have no clear recollection of that either. The fast pace of the start had given way to a gentle lull, and either I was more tired than I realised (possible) or the performance hadn’t engaged me as much as I would wish (also possible). Either way, I soon had a chance to stand up, move around and wake myself up for the second half, as the Bastard’s inability to kill the little boy was followed by the interval.
The second half opened with another song from the Bastard – don’t know this one either – and then the balloons were freed and the paper confetti released to smother the stage in a wild celebratory gesture. Only there was just John and two lords on the stage, and the whole effect was of a damp squib. The balloons went everywhere, and had to be kicked out of the way from time to time, but for once I didn’t mind – the effect was worth it.
The political bickering continued, then the Bastard reported that Arthur was dead. This news was not well received by the lords, and John became very unhappy with the Bastard for following his orders. I didn’t get all of this bit, and the next scene was no better. Arthur was on the ramparts of the castle, edging steadily along a dangerous wall on top of the steps. As he jumped off the stairs, falling behind them, a dummy was dropped in front of the steps to represent the dead body. This was what the lords found, and the Bastard, having told the king that Arthur was still alive, had to contend with the awkward reality of the boy’s body. This section also wasn’t fully clear to me, and the text is no help either, as Hubert and the Bastard are both present in this scene and have a long dialogue together. I assume this was truncated to a soliloquy, but don’t quote me.
With the French already on English soil, John had to swallow his pride and bow to Rome’s authority. For his third coronation, John was practically naked, and prostrated himself before Pandulph, who then gave him his crown again, just as the English lords were about to join with the Dauphin and support his challenge for the kingship. Pandulph then arrived to send Louis packing, but found it harder than expected to control the Dauphin’s actions. The King was taken ill, and the English lords, warned of the Dauphin’s intended treachery towards them, changed allegiance again. Too late; John died, his son became king, end of play.
There were some good performances in amongst all this, but with the unclear dialogue and resulting loss of the storyline, I couldn’t really get into this version of the play. We’re seeing it again later in the run; perhaps we’ll enjoy it more, perhaps not.
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me
Sheila, did you see the briliant production from the Complete Works in 2006? Richard McCabe played the title role, Joseph Millsom The Bastard, Tamsin Greig Blanche (such a pain in previous productions I’d seen but she broke my heart once Arthur was dead) and Josie O’Rourke directed. This for me will always be the definitive version as everyone was superb – even though I’m McCabe’s biggest fan! – and I felt it was a shame it didn’t transfer to London.
Yes, Hilary, we saw that one, but we must have caught it on a bad day because we didn’t enjoy it as much as you did. Perhaps seeing the fantastic Much Ado the night before led us to expect too much of the King John? (from the same cast)
I agree about Mr McCabe, though – did you see him as Puck in the Mdisummer Night’s Dream many years ago? Absolutely brilliant, and my favourite portrayal of that part (although the Indian chap in the Complete Works came close)