King John

William Shakespeare

Rose Theatre, Kingston-on-Thames

From 14 May 2016 to 05 June 2016

Review by Robert Tanitch

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Shakespeare wrote 37 plays and Trevor Nunn, one of the great directors of Shakespeare, has now directed 36 of them.

King John, overlong and heavy-going, will appeal mostly to Shakespeare completists.

It has never been popular with modern audiences. Sarah Siddons had a big success playing Constance in the 18th century. Few great actors since, apart from Charles Kean and William Macready, have wanted to play the unstable, unprincipled king.

King John is a notoriously difficult role in which to reconcile the different strands of his character. One of the most successful modern performances was by Leonard Rossiter on television.

Can you imagine any major playwright writing about King John and not even mentioning Magna Carta? Actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree in 1899 rectified Shakespeare’s glaring omission.

The most popular scene and one never fails to move audiences is when the very young Prince Arthur (Sebastian Croft) pleads with his warden, Hubert (Stephen Kennedy), not to blind him with a red-hot poker.

Shakespeare’s John (Jamie Ballard) begins as hero, the champion of England against the Church of Rome. He then turns villain, ordering the murder of Prince Arthur, who has a claim to the throne. Finally, he has a death scene which is clearly meant to be tragic but isn't.

These days, John is known best for chewing up the scenery and playing second villain to the Sheriff of Nottingham in films about Robin Hood. Jamie Ballard plays him as a weakling, rather than as a villain, and a not very bright weakling at that.

The play’s hero is Philip Faulconbridge (Howard Charles), the illegitimate son of Richard Coeur de Lion. Blunt, clear-sighted and deeply patriotic, he is the Spirit of Plantagenet and the conscience of England.

The scene which comes off best for Ballard is a nightmare when John is visited by Queen Elinor (his mother played by Maggie Steed), Constance (Arthur’s mother played by Lisa Dillon) and Cardinal Pandulph (the legate from Rome played by Burt Caesar). The scene is not in Shakespeare; it’s a scene from an earlier anonymous play called The Troublesome Reign of King John.

For the audience at the very first performance in the 1590s, the real villain would have been Rome. The text is very much anti-Catholic propaganda.

The devious and manipulative Pandulph's arguments are so convoluted that not even he, I suspect, understands them. One of the best scenes in Nunn’s production is when the Cardinal is holding forth and nobody on stage (and nobody in the auditorium) is any the wiser.

Shakespeare’s bombastic, jingoistic history play is a satire on political expediency and opportunism, an ironic comment on the shoddy and cynical alliances of kings, typified by the King of France (Dale Rapley) who, faced with excommunication by the Pope, immediately tears up the treaty he has just signed with England.

The medieval costumes do the actors no favours.