Poster for King John, featuring a woman sitting below a large circle illuminated with candles.

February 27, 2020, by Peter Kirwan

King John (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre

In a pointed and spectacular image towards the end of Eleanor Rhode’s production of King John, Cardinal Pandulph (Zara Ramm doing fantastic understudy work) sashayed across a stage filled with English and French soldiers wrestling and dying. King John (Rosie Sheehy) lay dead in an aluminium bathtub, bled out and soiled. As Pandulph reached centre-stage, she threw a handful of banknotes in the air, which fluttered carelessly among the dead and dying of the two sides she had set at enmity with one another. The play’s interest in commodity and material gain took on a bleak note, as this emblem of corrupt institutions profited from the suffering of other humans, offering a cynical grace note to a production fascinated by the material manifestations of power.

For the production’s first half, at least, there was something almost loutish about Sheehy’s John. The production opened on a long banqueting table, set up with breakfast and china tea set, as well as radio and twin phones, answered by Bridgitta Roy’s Queen Elinor. John, to a bass-heavy soundtrack, mixed himself a hangover cure and gloried in his new surroundings while in his pyjamas and dressing gown; he was newly crowned and seemed to barely believe his fortune in having risen to the top. Sheehy especially embodied the swagger of social mobility, his classy surroundings at odds with his slovenly behaviour. Set in a rough 60s/early 70s, the production evoked a period of social change, of new money and blurring class boundaries, and used this slippage to read John’s petulance and aggression through the prism of working-class rituals and expectations that satirised a social mobility concerned with material gain.

To this end, the Bastard (Michael Abubakar) became important as an invested participant and wry commentator on cultures of greed and gain. Initially he was attracted to the pugilistic, plain-speaking and -dealing Elinor and John, throwing off his posh brother Robert (Zed Josef) with a laugh for the chance to become a made man, and he revelled in the red jacket placed on his shoulders by John. His conversation with his somewhat distraught mother (Ramm) saw him celebrate his birth for the opportunity it gave him. But the Bastard’s increasing disillusionment throughout the production with the actions of the nobles was pronounced in his soliloquies, especially as he railed against the basely bought peace between the two nations, and saw the ease with which both sides would settle for the tacky trappings of power rather than something more meaningful or honourable.

His particular target was Austria (Richard Pryal), who entered in an enormous fur coat, punching and dancing as if ready for a fight. Austria’s entrance was countered by the arrival of the English forces at Angiers, all wearing shades and strutting their stuff down the thrust stage of the Swan, announcing themselves as if walking into an East End pub they ran. King Philip of France (David Birrell) was an old-school gentleman gangster, accompanied by his uppity entitled heir Lewis (Brian Martin), and their sneering at the upstart John was water off a duck’s back to the English king. The Bastard, however, enjoyed bringing everything down to his level, the feisty Scot ventriloquising insults from a hapless audience member and then getting up in Austria’s face and daring Austria and the French to throw off their pretensions and performances of power and instead roll up their sleeves.

The scenes in Angiers parodied stereotypes of working-class entertainment, having the dual effect of both being very funny and also of undermining the stakes of international conflict. The initial battle was turned into a boxing match, with hustlers setting up odds on a blackboard, and Blanche (Nadi Kemp-Sayfi) and Lewis rousing the audience on either side of the stage to cheer for the different sides with foam fingers. The fight was beautifully staged, with some parodic moments of slow-motion and Austria – one of the combatants – panting in a corner as he was prepared for the next round. Later, at Blanche and Lewis’s wedding, the eventual rift between the English and the French dissolved into a family feud and massive food fight, several trays of flour-covered buns arriving at the perfect moment for the stage to suddenly explode in a frenzy of projectiles (with which the audience, again, joined in heartily). As Philip turned to face the immaculate Pandulph with a bun stuck in his crown (and John, standing next to him, trying to surreptitiously remove it), the absolute childishness of the conflict was apparent.

But the form that the conflict took didn’t mean it didn’t matter. The gravitas of the first half was embodied by Arthur (Ethan Phillips), a young boy in shorts and a light blue sweater with toy soldiers knitted into it, who hated being there. He was controlled by Constance (Charlotte Randle), who mouthed the words of Arthur’s formal greeting to Austria along with him, stage-managing Arthur’s public appearances for her own purposes. Yet Constance felt things deeply. There was a beautiful comic moment as she ran up to the inflatable balloons announcing ‘Just married’ at the wedding and popped and rearranged them until they spelled out ‘Just die’; but this was only a lighter manifestation of her more profound anger and grief as she oscillated between despair and hope. The appearance of Pandulph was played for laughs, her purple dress, designer handbag and immaculate poise all contributing to her fantastic power play as she interrupted the wedding, and Constance’s delight in Pandulph’s condemnation of John was heartfelt. But after Arthur was stolen away, Constance’s grief was simply awful as she beat her breast, slumped in Philip’s arms, and finally marched herself off the stage with clear intent to harm herself, much to Philip’s dismay.

Perhaps more fascinating, though, was the often-overlooked role of Blanche. Kemp-Sayfi gave the character a huge amount of personality, seeing her as a cheerleader for John, and almost as lairy in her defiance of the French as the Bastard. But her bravado was punctured by John and Phillip’s decision (interestingly at the instigation of Hubert (Tom McCall), here already an aide to John, rather than a suggestion coming from the citizens of Angiers) to marry her to Lewis. Both Lewis and Blanche were displeased with the choice, but Lewis used all his charm to effect a public performance of acceptance that had the women of Angiers dropping their spectacles to sigh over the romantic prince (even if Lewis’s speech clearly referred to himself more than to Blanche). Blanche, on the other hand, went through a rollercoaster of feelings, from sobbing in a corner to defiance, to an angry and bitter acceptance of Lewis. Later, as the French and English went their separate ways to the war, everyone froze while Blanche’s soliloquy was given full weight, Kemp-Sayfi setting out the impossible situation she had been put in before, grudgingly, leaving with the stony-faced Dauphin.

While the blocking of the conflict between the English and the French was sometimes a little messy, the central pull together of Philip and John was clear throughout, John repeatedly returning to Philip and grabbing him by the hand, holding him, while Pandulph held forth about the consequences and the Bastard, Austria, Lewis and Blanche took turns to come to the fore and contribute to the melee. The chaos was resolved as they ran off to the battle and the Bastard entered cradling Austria’s severed head, suddenly bringing a level of consequence to proceedings underpinned by laughter. But it was at this point, too, that the more serious tone of the second half was trailed, with Sheehy showing a great deal of conflict and uncertainty in John as he looked at the captured Arthur and decided what to do with him. Earlier, John had enjoyed lording it over his nephew, looking down on him with a scary face before bursting into a smile; now, he seemed less sure, and the commissioning of Hubert was done with staccato words, quickly getting out the order in as short a time as possible.

The production’s second half took a more serious tone. John’s second coronation saw a long catwalk set up, with John parading himself formally along it, gathering up his robes before sitting in state. Later, he submitted to be re-crowned again by Pandulph, kneeling before the Cardinal with no small amount of ambivalence (Peter of Pomfret was cut, removing the element of fate from this sequence). Following the initial recrowning, though, Pandulph’s replacing of John’s crown was done without formal ceremony or trappings. Instead, the ceremony seemed displaced to the emblematic circle that hung over the stage throughout the production, which was lowered at the start of the second half to reveal a series of candles atop it, which were lit and remained so for the rest of the half. The crown-shaped circle hovered above the stage, awaiting the outcome of the ongoing wars. This emblematic symbol was lowered for the first scene of the second half to form the walls of Hubert’s surgery, where he planned to kill Arthur; the tight space trapped the two together as they fought, wrestled, shouted, and finally embraced. McCall’s sincere performance – easily the most sincere of the entire production, suggesting Hubert as a character with no pretension above his station – was deeply affecting, and Phillips worked hard to put the pressure on Hubert, with some audible sighs of relief as the promise of putting out Arthur’s eyes was averted.

From the emphasis on the emblematic crown, the second half continued to use representative imagery as the production stepped away from comedy towards something with more serious purpose. Lewis’s entitlement came through here; at the end of the first half, left alone with Pandulph onstage, he had helped himself to some of the abandoned wedding cake before pledging himself to the conflict to come; now, he stood upright before Pandulph and refused to call off the wars even after Pandulph had ordered him to. The Bastard’s confrontation of the Dauphin had serious purpose, setting the Bastard against this representative of assumed and inherited privilege, and the conflict escalated through a series of formal and symmetrical images, including placing their knife fight atop the banquet tables, repurposed here as a rotating platform on the stage. The repeated use of this platform – as breakfast table, wedding table, coronation platform, duelling gantry – centred it as a locus for presentation and/or contestation of power.

Alongside this, Arthur was repurposed as a ghost haunting John. Sheehy was phenomenal in the second act, John’s temper and fear manifesting in outbursts of fury and panic and gratitude as he castigated Hubert, only for Hubert to offer a rare cross word back as he roared at his king. John’s instability was compounded by Arthur’s fate. His death scene was one of the weakest moments of the production, Arthur walking along the gantry and then picked up by a group of black-clothed ensemble members who brought Arthur to the downstage edge before carrying him away; the removal of any of Arthur’s dialogue rather obscured the fact of his accidental death. But Arthur’s reappearance with a bloodied gash across one side of his face – mirroring the scarring on Hubert’s face – coincided with John beginning to spit up blood, John’s ailing tied clearly to his guilt over Arthur’s death, whether providential or no. As Lewis lunged at the Bastard but instead stabbed Chatillon, the platform took on a split-screen function, with Chatillon speaking Melun’s lines as he told Pembroke (John Cummins) and Salisbury (Corey Montague-Sholay) of Lewis’s treacher at one end, while John announced his intention to flee to Swinstead Abbey on the other, the fate of England and the fate of its king interweaved to great effect.

The climactic sequence, however, saw the most powerful rewriting of the play as, instead of Pandulph bringing peace from Lewis, the Bastard instead led the armies back out to war. John’s death was staged in the most abject manner, the debasement from the earlier obsession with materiality and class ascension complete as John was carried on in soiled clothes and deposited into a bathtub on stage, where he proceeded to vomit up blood and stutter out his final words to the Bastard while his whole body shook. Prince Henry was cut; instead, the armies re-entered conflict as Pandulph looked on what she had wrought; and, in a final moment, the large crown was lowered to the stage again and Constance and Arthur entered to extinguish the candles and crown Arthur. Quite what this final part aimed to signify was unclear; perhaps a reminder of the lost hopes of the future, reminiscent of the now-canonical reappearance of the dead Mamillius at the end of The Winter’s Tale. It was a cynical ending with little hope for the future, and the Bastard himself disappearing into a melee that suggested the dissolution of England under the pressures of economy, corruption and hatred.

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