‘Desperate determination to be fun makes it less than gripping’: KING JOHN – Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon ★★★

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Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon – until 20 March 2019

There’s something about this account of “England’s worst King”,  one of Shakespeare’s least-known plays, which causes directors to go “let’s ZHOOSH it up for the Youth!!” Newish directors, that is: that old fox Trevor Nunn served it up with traditional fleur-de-lys and trumpets at the Kingston Rose a while ago, and ironically I found myself more engaged: not even too bothered about the missing bits and disputed authorship. Its cores –  political weakness, familial rifts and self-interest showed up better.

But it attracts gimmickists. Last time it was done here by the RSC  it was like a hen party designed by Timmy-Mallet, with balloons, harlequin tights and a vital character dropped. Now once again the baton  goes to a new director – Eleanor Rhode from Hightide – who appears enamoured of mid-20c soap and movies, sartorially and tonally (Max Johns designs, albeit with a huge tapestry backdrop conflating all periods, which is rather fine). It seems to say hey, forget the tragedy-plantagenetty stuff, it’s just a dysfunctional family comedy! A royal Dynasty, innit, what’s not to like? Queen Eleanor is basically Joan Collins.

It could work, and in the shorter, darker, more medieval part after the interval it begins to, with the actors at last allowed to stop yelling and clowning (good work from Charlotte Randle as Lady Constance in her grief, Rosie Sheehy as King John collapsing into hysteria and blaming Hubert, Tom McCall as Hubert the failed murderer himself, and Michael Abubakar as a sprightly Bastard).

The first half, though, is a gruelling 90 minutes which could wear you down a bit. Though there is quite an entertaining food-fight at the wedding of the Dauphin and Blanche, and the movement and fight directors (two of the latter!) deserve a lot of credit.   Especially for the bit when King Philip gets a floury bap stuck on the point of his crown. And it is quite witty (and technically clever) that in the course of that shenanigan the JUST MARRIED balloons are twisted into JUST DIE.

But all in all, the shouty carelessness with the verse (some of the loveliest lines of Shakespeare are in here) and the desperate determination to be fun made it less than gripping until its last more solemn moments. But look, I’m not hostile: it’s 2019, the RSC has lots of crap telly to compete against, so I’ve no objection to Cardinal Pandulph being depicted as a pouting, mincing Elsie Tanner from Coronation Street, nor to the homages to Bunuel and the Sopranos. And yes, on press night anyway lots of people did often laugh. And young Ethan Phillips was very good indeed as the doomed child Arthur, indeed displaying a finer sense of language than some of the adults.

Maybe I’m just an old misery.   It gets one mouse more than the last RSC King John did.  And as it’s never a set book, extreme larkiness doesn’t confuse the poor GCSE kids the way a gimmicky Macbeth would.   But it would be grand if, as the new decade begins, the RSC  had a think about doing the play another way.

 

Box office: 01789 403493.   rsc.org.uk   in rep   to  20 march and in cinemas on 29 APril next year

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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