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King John ***

Rose Theatre Kingston, 30 May 2016

Trevor Nunn’s Wars of the Roses, his homage to his mentors at the RSC Peter Hall and John Barton, was one of the theatrical events of last season, so it was with high expectations that the trip to the Rose Theatre, Kingston was made once more for King John. Unfortunately, his latest offering falls a long way short of the heights scaled in Wars of the Roses, both in the material and the production.

King John is a rarely performed play, and, on the evidence of this evening in the theatre, it’s easy to see why. The dramatic pacing is all wrong. In the first half, the stylus seems stuck in the record groove, while in the second half it jumps and skates to a pre-emptory conclusion. Clearly, in any Shakespearian history, the events of many years are telescoped, ‘Turning th’ accomplishment of many years into an Hour glass’, but here there is often a succession of unexplained developments and sketchily written characters.

To paper over the cracks in the original text, Sir Trevor has introduced material from an earlier, anonymous play called “The Troublesome Reign of King John” written in 1591, about four years before Shakespeare is thought to have written King John. This work was ascribed to Shakespeare in the second quarto of 1611, and the kinship between the two works is not disputed. Nonetheless, the two plays put together do not make one satisfying play.

Victorian interpreters, imbued as they were with an unquestioned allegiance to Whiggish history, found it appalling that there is no mention of Magna Carta in this play, and set about correcting this grievous omission by specially written scenes. What is more troubling from a dramatic perspective is that the conflicts that are included, such the tussle with the Papacy and his treatment of the leading nobles, are so inadequately addressed that they are simply bewildering.

Things aren’t helped by a slapdash, unfinished quality to this production. With this play and A Midsummer Night’s Dream about to open in Ipswich later this year, Sir Trevor has now directed all 40 of Shakespeare’s play, but there is a sense about this play that he’s simply crossed it off his to-do list but his heart isn’t really in it. It’s a very traditional rendering, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it could do with more imagination.

For example, whenever there’s a battle, the actors discreetly leave the stage and flickering black and white images of gallant knights performing deeds of chivalric derring-do are displayed on two large two screens above the stage. A sound track by Eric Korngold would not be inappropriate. King John is a very talky play, in which events are talked about rather than seen, but still this looks like a cheap cop-out.

The set seems very similar, and may indeed be the same one to the one used in Wars of the Roses. Even the helpful Plantagenet family tree displayed in the foyer to the theatre is written on a blackboard. Not enough care and love has been expended on this production.

Not that there aren’t very strong qualities to it. The verse is generally well delivered and it seems due attention has been devoted to it. In an era of naturalism, and when the artistic director of London’s major Shakespearian theatre seems to the think the text is all really a bit overrated, this is not a given. It is also beautifully costumed.

Some of the performances are very good. King John is another of Shakespeare’s explorations of the nature of kingship, and John is manifestly unsuited to the role. He claims it be double-dealing over the head of Arthur, son of his elder brother Geoffrey, descends into tyranny and, most reprehensibly, loses most of his father’s Angevin empire. Jamie Ballard gives him a fey, spiteful quality, and also provides the only comic moments of the evening: he says “Pope” just as Edmund Blackadder says “Bob”, and occasionally gives the audience a Jack Benny ‘WTF?’ glance.

Joe Bannister as the dauphin speaks the verse beautifully, and when he falls in love with Blanche of Castile, the production briefly soars to the heights we know only Shakespeare can reach.

Faulconbridge is the moral touchstone of the play, a chiefly fictitious character who is the illegitimate son of Richard the Lionheart. Initially loyal to John, he is appalled by the deceit and double-dealing he sees around him. He denounces ‘That smooth-face’d gentleman, tickling commodity’ which unbalances the natural order of the world, yet confesses he is only so self righteous because he has yet to be so tempted.

Howard Charles brings a muscular vitality to the role, yet occasionally he seems to be doing a performance for the deaf. There is no need, for example, to threaten Hubert with the line ‘And if thou wan’st a cord, the smallest thread.....Will serve to strangle thee’ while miming winding an invisible rope round his own neck.

Last year’s Wars of the Roses was somewhat, and infuriatingly, overshadowed by a row over Nunn’s entirely Caucasian casting. He defended himself against the outpouring of outrage by saying it was ‘historically accurate’ – a factually impregnable argument one might think, but of course laughably unreconstructed for this day and age.

He is too old a bird to be caught by that chaff a second time and casts two actors of colour as Faulconbridge and Pandulph, the papal legate. In doing so he has satisfied the guardians of morality, but it cannot be said that the artistic recreation of thirteenth century England is helped by a cardinal who has the appearance and sounds like the Archbishop of Lagos, c.2016.

Dominic Maffham, as the earl of Salisbury, and Miles Richardson, as the earl of Pembroke, are rock solid and Stephen Kennedy, as Hubert, exudes the spirit of a noble man in an ignoble time. But these performances are not enough to rescue the production from long periods of tedium and confusion. It’s a play rarely seen, and the verse speaking is good, so the production is not without redemption but it would be difficult to describe this as an exciting night in the theatre.


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