King John is one of Shakespeare’s more rarely performed plays, and what a pity that is, because it’s full of fascinating characters, splendid speeches, dramatic gruesomeness and the odd bit of humour. So when the opportunity comes around to share it with a whole new audience, it shouldn’t be wasted. I’ve never sided with the purists when it comes to Shakespeare – he’s big and strong enough to look after himself, and if a production comes along that takes liberties – to the extent that it doesn’t work – then you can always console yourself with the fact that another production will come along soon enough.
I must confess though, Eleanor Rhode’s mid-20th century, gender-swapping, vital scene-removing, and altogether flippant production really tested my patience. If it hadn’t been for the excellence of the performances – which were almost universally perfect – and also for the superbly recreated costumes (take a bow Max Johns) – I would have been darn tempted to leave at halftime. To be fair, that would have been an error on my part, as the show considerably calms down after the interval, as the quest to get to the finishing line trims down most of the excesses.
The mood is set with a 60s pop opening soundtrack, and the sight of King John’s very long breakfast table, equipped with two 60s telephones, a posh transistor radio, and a bit of toast. Enter King, in jim-jams and crown, gulping down a hangover cure after what was presumably a heavy night; not that there’s any reason to believe that John was a drinker – we don’t see him touch a drop for the rest of the play. I think it’s an attempt to show that he’s a bit of a lad. A quick moment of comic business follows, with an unanswered phone which – I presume – is to suggest that the King is always in demand. If that’s the case, why don’t phones reappear in the rest of the production? Actually they do; in one moment of appallingly anachronistic and hackneyed comedy, when the papal legate enters the stage and does the internationally recognised “call me” signal to a member of the audience, forgetting that in the sixties we didn’t have mobiles. It’s this kind of inconsistency that reveals how poorly thought through is the whole directorial vision of the production.
Usually, gender-swapping roles has the benefit of seeing a well-known text through fresh eyes; but when the play is not so well-known, and when so many other liberties have been taken with the original, messing with the gender of the character can cause some confusion. Another confession; in this instance, I found the fact that a man was played by a woman jarred. If it had been a more serious, traditional production, it probably would have worked – but this is a production that errs on the side of the ludicrous. Don’t get me wrong; as King John, Rosie Sheehy is a fine actor with great presence, excellent clarity of diction, and a deft knack of conveying mood swings. But she’s definitely playing King John and not Queen Jean – he’s referred to as a man throughout the play – but Ms Sheehy wears women’s attire – including a stunning gold coronation dress (another bow for the designer). She’s not giving us a male impersonation performance; we’re not watching Vesta Tilley here.
So why a female performer in the role? If the answer is, she was the best person available for the job, then I can understand that. True, it does allow for a moment of dramatic irony where the king cuddles up to Hubert in a semi-sexual way, implying that if he kills Arthur, he/she will make it worth his while; you must decide if that liberty with the script is acceptable or not. Otherwise, it tends to distort the relationships between the characters. Queen Elinor and John, for example, have a power-bond which looks and feels very different between mother and son instead of mother and daughter. Don’t forget this is a tragedy – even though at times it felt more like a pantomime. King John as Principal Boy, Philip the Bastard as Simple Simon and Cardinal Pandulph as the Wicked Witch. For the most part, I couldn’t take it seriously.
Take, for instance, those group comedy dance entrances, when the English or the French court appear on stage to a groovy soundtrack and attitudinal dance moves – they reminded me of the finale sequence in that highly successful production of Boeing Boeing about ten years ago; or the boxing scene, which I believe was meant to represent the siege of Angiers, but was much more reminiscent of Monty Python than Shakespeare; I would not have been remotely surprised for the Dauphin to have threatened “I wave my private parts in your general direction”. The food fight at the wedding, though beautifully choreographed, was reminiscent not so much of a ghastly family get-together but more of a comedy routine with Charlie Cairoli and his clowns – 60s pantomime through and through. Best performance by a Pastry Item in a Shakespeare play goes to the bit of cake that ends up in the King of France’s crown.
But even when they’d cleared away all the jokey excesses of the first two hours, in the height of battle between the English and French forces, they fought…on two revolving trestle tables. I was so distracted by watching the wheels go around, checking to see if they fell off the stage, that I completely forgot to pay attention to the actors. And then – of all scenes to cut – they remove the scene where Arthur dies and is discovered by Pembroke and Salisbury. Instead, the dead Arthur reappears all bloodied and zombie-like a couple of times, presumably as a ghost, and you’re left to your own devices as to how he came a-cropper.
The few moments when the production did soar for me were when the direction took a back seat and the text shone through. The pleading by Hubert (should be the First Citizen, but we’ll let that pass) that Blanche and the Dauphin should marry to end the warring between England and France, and the subsequent reactions by the two forcibly engaged young people was a breath of fresh air. The scene where Hubert is required to murder Arthur, but doesn’t, is electric with tension. But sadly these tremendous moments were few and far between.
Along with a great performance by Rosie Sheehy as King John, I was extremely impressed by Michael Abubakar as the cocksure Philip the Bastard, sweet-talking his way into the affections of the crown; Bridgitta Roy as the superior Queen Elinor and a beautifully pitched performance by Tom McCall as the torn Hubert, agonising over the balance of between serving the King and retaining his own humanity. Katherine Pearce went down a storm and was clearly the audience’s favourite as the papal legate Cardinal Pandulph, although whenever I watched her all I could see was Patricia Routledge playing Victoria Wood’s creation Kitty from about 1984.
I’m not a Shakespeare purist – but there are limits. You can see the threads of a few directorial ideas, but they’re not followed through, and, despite some panache-filled performances, by trying to create a comedy out of a tragedy, it succeeds at neither. This one wasn’t for me. This production continues in repertoire at the Swan Theatre until 21 March 2020 and will be broadcast in cinemas on 29th April 2020.
Production photos by Steve Tanner