August 31, 2006, by Peter Kirwan

King John (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre

I’d be lying to say that this is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. When Nos do Morro were invited to do a play in the Complete Works Festival, the only two left were ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ and ‘King John’- and to them, there wasn’t even a choice to make. So, the RSC quite bravely mounted a full-scale production of it for the Swan, featuring the applauded cast of ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Lots of big names, including Tamsin Greig, Joseph Millson, Sorcha Cusack, Patrick Robinson and, for this play only, associate artist Richard McCabe.

The gambit paid off, as this is an excellent ‘John’ that’s received good reviews and even filled the house on a Thursday afternoon. A simple but elegant design, dominated by two enormous gates that open and shut to figure the court or the city walls, allowed the cast plenty of room to take over, and the result was a very enjoyable three hours.

This was the first Shakespeare play I saw at the Swan, about six years ago- and while I don’t remember much of it, two things still stick with me- the shocking death of Arthur, and the very funny Bastard. Both elements still stuck out strongly today. Ralph Davis’ Arthur balanced precariously on the railings at the very top of the theatre, before falling forward with a piercing scream and a blackout, lifting a moment later to reveal him writhing on the stage below. Just as powerful was Joseph Millson’s turn as the Bastard, taking his own excellent performance as Benedick and building on it to create a Bastard with a love of the macabre (licking the blood of the dead Austria’s severed head) and true sense of showmanship.

The stage belonged to Richard McCabe as the titular monarch, though. He gave one of Shakespeare’s least sympathetic monarchs an impressive range- a mummy’s boy in the early scenes, standing awkwardly about making faces at Arthur, and a truly troubled man in the later scenes, holding his head and sobbing as he ran from the Bastard, hiding behind his own throne. At times he seemed truly kingly, at times his usurpation was all too obvious. While never truly rooting for him as monarch, we also pitied him, and certainly the petulant Dauphin didn’t seem any better a replacement.

This isn’t a woman’s play, most of the female characters being dead or disappeared by the start of the second act, but Tamsin Greig’s Beatrice was very good, and Morven Christie as Blanche was supremely disdainful at the Dauphin’s wooing (made funnier when remembering the same two actors as Romeo and Juliet, and with the knowledge of a real-life relationship between the two!). Sorcha Cusack gave a more balanced than usual portayal of Queen Eleanor too- ruthlessly ambitious, but also tender of the young Arthur, shown as she walked off in scorn.

A beautiful choral score added to the atmosphere, along with very effective use of lighting (the Bastard and Hubert shared one scene in almost pitch-darkness). Fast, funny and ultimately very affecting, hopefully this production will have positively affected a lot of people’s opinions of ‘King John’. It will never be the greatest of the histories, but there is a very enjoyable play in there, which Josie Rourke has fully brought out.

Posted in Theatre review