King John – August 2012


By William Shakespeare

Directed by Maria Aberg

Venue: Swan Theatre, Stratford

Date: Wednesday 22nd August 2012

Our experience tonight was much better than last time, and there were several reasons for this. Firstly, the performances had come on a lot since May which was to be expected, although the seven week layoff (barring one performance) could have been a problem. Secondly we heard an excellent talk this afternoon by Robert Maslan about the play, and although he based it on the regular text rather than this production, we learned more details which helped in our understanding. Our position was different too, which helped, and of course we knew this time that we weren’t seeing the usual version of the text, so we could relax and enjoy this interpretation without getting hung up on the casting or the set.

The opening was the same, but as we’d also had a session with Pippa Nixon this morning I’m afraid we Summer Scholars got a bit carried away with Land Of Hope And Glory and nearly ruined the entrance of the court. The Bastard’s ukulele playing hasn’t improved much, I’m sad to say. John did the same little tease with the crown as before, and again ignored the French ambassador for a while before listening to him. When the bastard Falconbridge and her brother came on, Pippa started to use her feminine charms to win the argument, unzipping her top and displaying her cleavage to good advantage (as she had done last time), but although John noticed her looks, the sexual attraction between them was kept in check most of the time which allowed the other aspects of their relationship to be explored much more, and overall I felt that helped the performance.

In front of Angiers, the wrangling between the two sides was clearer this time. The citizens stood round the balcony and spoke in unison, first to declare their allegiance to the King of England, then to point out that they didn’t know who that was, and then to put forward the suggestion that Blanche and the Dauphin marry to create peace between France and England. I didn’t spot when Constance and Arthur left this scene; probably during the general exit before the townsfolk made their marriage proposal. From our position tonight I could see Blanche and Louis sitting on the steps while this talk was going on, and I had a much clearer view of their incompetent wooing. Louis was totally self-regarding, seeing himself when he looked in her eyes, while her lines were delivered so jerkily that it was impossible to tell whether she liked the Dauphin or not, as was intended.

Again Elinor had to prompt John with a cough to add Anjou to the list of provinces in Blanche’s dowry, and again she held her hand to her head in reaction to him giving away thirty thousand marks as well. The bargain was sealed with a chest bump between the two kings, and then they partied. The court posed on the steps as before, and following today’s talk the “commodity” speech came over much better. When John brought out the microphone he started speaking the line “the moment I wake up”, then began singing with the next line “before I put on my makeup”. The King of France carried on, and then everyone joined in. Soon Blanche and Louis were holding the microphones and stood facing each other on a couple of the benches. Their song wasThe Time Of My Life, and really got the crowd rocking, especially with their Dirty Dancing routine.

Eventually the party moved off stage and Constance, accompanied by Arthur, Salisbury and Pembroke, came on (Pembroke is an addition to my text). Her grief was more like anger, which helped to keep the energy levels up. I’ve often found her whining rather dreary in past productions, by Susie Trayling was very good in this role, and kept me watching and listening for once.

The party returned, coming on from both sides at the top of the stairs. Not seeing Constance at first, Philip was very happy and announced a new French public holiday. Then he and John, arms on each other’s shoulders, turned and walked down the steps, to be confronted by a very angry woman. Oops. I did like the extra party hats, especially the clown’s hat worn by Austria which rather undercut his macho attempts to stop the Bastard insulting him, and we both appreciated the devil’s horns which Elinor had chosen to wear on her head.

Fortunately the Pope’s legate, Pandulph, arrived to speak to John about releasing the Archbishop of Canterbury. Unfortunately, John decided not to cooperate with the Holy Father’s request, and was excommunicated. Philip struggled to find a way out of his predicament; he didn’t want to lose the new-found peace by going to war against England, but the threat of being excommunicated himself was too much to resist. Blanche’s situation was no better; she was now connected to both sides, and would lose either way. I wasn’t particularly moved by any of the performances tonight, but the one that came closest was this, when Blanche expressed her divided loyalties and the suffering this was causing her. She went with Louis, but was never happy again.

After introducing us to Austria’s head, the Bastard took on Hubert’s role, meaning that Essex had to take on the Bastard’s job of raising money in England. When suborning the Bastard to kill young Arthur, John first gave him his own silver dog tags to wear, which the Bastard was proud to receive. The sexual attraction got in the way of this scene first time round; it was better tonight without such distractions.

The next scene with the French included Blanche as well, though being without dialogue she sat on the steps and said nothing. Constance was excellent in this scene, with all her arguments coming across clearly. After she left, followed by King Philip, Pandulph began to manipulate Louis into attacking England in order to claim the throne by right of his marriage to Blanche. This caused Blanche’s only reaction in this scene – she stood up when Pandulph first made this suggestion, not happy at the prospect of war between France and England.

The attempt at blinding Arthur was OK; I heard quite a lot of the lines, and I’d been aware since this morning’s talk how often eyes and sight were mentioned in this play, but the main point of the scene in this version was to show the change in the Bastard’s attitude to King John. When the Bastard led Arthur off they took the interval, and again there were fewer seats occupied in the second half, though it wasn’t as obvious as with Troilus And Cressida last week.

The second half started with another song from the Bastard, and during it John appeared at the top of the stairs. (I haven’t been able to track down the lyrics – something about keeping baby teeth in a drawer with jewellery.) Again he placed his crown on his own head and stood there while she sang. When the song was finished, the balloons were released, along with lots of confetti which landed on the audience as well. The Bastard dragged the microphone stand off after looking at John on the steps; I wondered if this was meant to reflect her change of attitude.

John’s discussion with Salisbury and Pembroke was interrupted by the Bastard, and from the lords’ comments it was clear that they had heard of the King’s intent to kill Arthur and that the Bastard had been chosen to carry out the murder. The announcement of Arthur’s death was no surprise to these men, and after they left John received the news of the Dauphin’s army, his mother’s death and Constance’s death, while from the Bastard, resuming her non-Hubert shape, he heard of the unrest in the country. John was not a happy bunny. He ranted at the Bastard for misinterpreting his commands, but then she showed him the very order which he had signed. He next complained that she hadn’t prevented this mistake on his part, and frankly I wanted to shout ‘man up’ at the little wimp. After a bit of rough-housing, he had the Bastard on her back and was viciously grabbing at her crotch, but she managed to get away and finally admitted, Hubert-like, that she hadn’t done the deed. Relief all round, and John sent the Bastard running off to tell the peers.

Meanwhile, at the castle Arthur was making his escape. The walls were high and slippery, and with the lights lowered he had difficulty making his way to safety. They staged this differently according to my earlier notes. Arthur came down the steps some way, saying his lines, then another Arthur edged out along the top. They reflected each other’s positions, facing in opposite directions, then fell down, one behind the steps and the other onto the ground. With the balloons hiding the body, it was quite plausible that the lords could come on, discussing their meeting with the French, and not see the corpse until well into the scene. Of course with the Bastard and Hubert being one and the same, the lines were rearranged considerably, and the long dialogue between the two characters was severely cut. When Salisbury drew his ‘sword’, the Bastard drew her gun, which was funny, and being a woman she couldn’t actually pick up the dead boy; she cradled him in her arms, and his corpse walked off stage later when the next scene was under way.

The rapprochement between John and Pandulph was next. John came to the front of the stage and took off his shirt, then knelt down with his coronet over his praying hands, facing Pandulph who had come down the steps. She asserted her authority over him by staying well back, so he had to shuffle towards her on his knees, then bowed right down before her. When she lifted up his hands to remove the crown, he held on to it briefly, as if loath to let it go, but released it eventually. As soon as he’d been crowned (again) he became all business-like, telling the legate to hurry and stop the French army, while Pandulph was confident that what she had started she could stop. The Bastard reported the latest information to the king, including Arthur’s actual death, and was incensed to hear of yet another compromise, on this occasion with the Church. This time, I was aware of John giving the Bastard authority to run things. I also spotted that the ‘For God and England’ neon sign at the back was flickering and losing some of its letters, another indication that the country was going to rack and ruin.

When Louis met with the English lords, Blanche was present again, but only just. I don’t know what she’d been taking, alcohol or drugs or both, but she looked terrible. Her marriage wasn’t turning out well for her, and I wondered if, like Lady Anne in Richard III, she wouldn’t be long for this world. When Pandulph turned up, she learned that it wasn’t so easy to stop a war as to start one, and with the Bastard making defiant declarations it looked like there might be a battle after all.

King John was with his son, Prince Henry, when he felt ill and had to go to Swinstead Abbey. The next three scenes were trimmed to the essentials only, and played out in a repeating fashion from the balconies. John was down below, watching these events, as if he was being given the news while his fevered mind tried to make sense of it. The Bastard said the lines “Show me the very wound of this ill news: I am no woman. I’ll not swoon at it” (unfortunate, given that she was a woman), the French reported their lost supplies and the changing allegiance of the English, the French count Melun warned the English lords that the Dauphin meant to kill them after the victory was won, and these sections were repeated several times. This phase was brought to a conclusion by the reply to the Bastard, informing us that the king had been poisoned. Then things got even more surreal.

The king sat on one of the benches, clearly unwell. This went on for a bit, then he got up, the music started and he began to do a dance routine, looking like he was fine. He went through the routine a couple of times so we could see what it was meant to look like, then he began to suffer, as did the dancing, and finally he staggered to the steps and collapsed there, reaching towards the bottles of champagne – partying to the end. The Bastard arrived as did Prince Henry, and with a few speeches from the final scene, the king finally died. The Bastard hugged him, wept, and looked more distressed than the young prince, who took up the crown and held it till the end. The Bastard closed the play with the familiar speech, and I found myself pondering that England had indeed been conquered, by William, and not that long before. Still, it was a good ending, and we were much happier at the end of this performance than last time.

Once again, having consulted the text, I’m aware that this was only a version of the play, and a much adulterated version to boot. The production hung together well enough in its own terms, but I wasn’t moved by any of the characters, and while the female Bastard/Hubert seemed to work better this time around, I’m not convinced it’s a helpful interpretation overall. Pippa Nixon’s excellent performance made a difference, and she and Alex Waldmann came on to take some bows together tonight, which seemed appropriate. His performance as John was very good, and I hope the RSC will find more work for him to do in the future (we already know that Pippa is coming back to give us Rosalind and Ophelia). Credit to the rest of the cast as well; they worked well together and that’s vital for a good performance.

We’re not usually concerned to see ‘traditional’ Shakespeare – as if there was such a thing – but I’d certainly prefer see a production of this play which sticks more to the text than they did tonight. The similarities with modern times were reasonably appropriate, and the energy and humour were good fun, but we still felt there was something lacking, that the production wasn’t as meaty as it could have been. I do hope other actresses can find this level of anger and passion in the Constance role though; it really helps the performance to have that character played so strongly. But now that we’ve had the Complete Works and World Shakespeare Festivals, perhaps they’ll return to doing this play less frequently; we’ll see.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at

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