Royal Shakespeare Company
Northern Stage, Newcastle
Perhaps the best way to appreciate King John is as an example of a stage in Shakespeare's development as a playwright. There are so many styles and ideas in the mix that, at times, we seem to be in different plays. Before Angiers we have what is essentially a stand-up rhetorical debate between John and Philip of France, with one of the leading citizens of that town as jury, and, at the other extreme, we have Constance's passionate mourning for the death of her young son, Arthur. We have a character - more or less invented by Shakespeare - Faulconbridge the Bastard, who stands both inside and outside the play, helping to drive the plot forward with his support of John but also making direct contact with the audience, and who is also very clearly Lear's Edmund in embryo. Indeed, he more or less paraphrases Edmund's cry, "Now gods, stand up for bastards!"
Then there are the women: important characters in the first half they all, with the exception of Constance, vanish in the second. Queen Eleanor's death is merely reported almost as an aside - a little reminiscent of Richard III's "And Anne my wife has bid the world goodnight."
Like many of the history plays, King John is primarily concerned with the succession of kings and the quarrels between England and France over English possessions there, although it does touch upon John's conflict with the Catholic Church but not to the extent that one of Shakespeare's sources, The Troublesome Reign of King John (1591), does: what should be a climactic point in the play, John's excommunication and Philip's consequent abandonment of their alliance, doesn't reach the dramatic heights one would expect, in spite of director Josie Rourke's impressive staging of the actual excomunication.
As with Henry VI, which was also written, it is believed, in the early 1590s, characterisation takes second place to narrative - Pembroke, Salisbury and Essex, for example, are almost interchangeable - but there are signs of the depth of characterisation which was to become such an important part of the later history plays.
All in all, King John is not an easy play to stage effectively, which is why it is not done very often.
That said, this RSC production brings the play alive. Richard McCabe's John is arrogant and weak, almost petulant at times in his anger. The contrast with his main opponent of the first half, Tamsin Greig's Constance, is striking. She has an all-consuming passion for the right of her son to succeed to the throne beside which his self-seeking petulance pales into insignificance. Joseph Millson's performance as Faulconbridge is powerful indeed. He makes the most of the character's depth and range and dominates the stage.
Peter McKintosh's set, simple though it is, is very effective, helped enormously by Neil Austin's lighting. Special mention must be made, too, of the music (Jocelyn Pook): sung by Vivien Ellis, Sara Stowe and Jacqui Norrie, assisted by all the members of the company on occasions and accompanied by period instruments, it is very much in period and underscores the action beautifully.
It is obvious why this is a minor work in the Shakespearean canon but it must surely be part of the remit of the RSC to revisit such plays periodically - who better to do so than them?
Pete Wood reviewed this production at the Swan, Stratford.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan