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King John: A Theatrical Film

William Shakespeare, adapted by Abey Bradbury
Cream Faced Loons and SquadFour Productions
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King John: A Theatrical Film
King John: A Theatrical Film
King John: A Theatrical Film

With King John: A Theatrical Film, Cream Faced Loons move their adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s lesser works from the stage to the screen.

The original play features elements—a resentful, illegitimate child scheming to obtain what she regards as her due—familiar from other, better, plays by the Bard. King John (Danny Childs) has taken the throne of England but his regime is uneasy. Challenges come from his brother Arthur (Tyle Holland) and the French Dauphin (Dan Bruce). At least the King has the support of his advisers; in particular, the manipulative Bastard (Nicki Davy).

In adapting the play, director Abey Bradbury trims scenes and merges characters. Typical of a production that makes strengths of potential weaknesses, she uses this approach to add to the atmosphere of a threadbare kingdom on the brink of anarchy.

A television announcer, who serves as narrator and helps paper over any gaps in the plot with helpful summaries, adds to the feeling of events rushing out of control. A would-be royal wedding looks more like a tacky night out in Blackpool and inevitably ends in a drunken punch-up. A limited budget means massive battle scenes are replaced by 1980s-style film montages. The characters, in too much make up, with big hair and swamped in dry ice, perform inspirational soft-rock epics in the style of Queen or Elton John.

Rather than be content with a simple filmed version of the stage play, Bradbury makes full use of the opportunities offered by the screen format. The filming by Matthew Fordy and Danny Childs is oppressive. Scenes take place in claustrophobic corridors or shadowy rooms. The camera follows characters as they gather in a rugby scrum to plot.

This is not to say King John: A Theatrical Film is relentlessly grim. Bradbury is always willing to lift the mood with an occasional irreverent gag. The cast play so many different roles, when Lords Salisbury and Pembroke appear, their names are displayed on hastily written labels. When the similarity between a female character and the king is remarked upon, the scene cuts to her portrait featuring a hand-drawn moustache.

The casting in the play is gender blind, but this may be more making a political point than following current trends. The principal roles—the King, Arthur, the Dauphin—are played by men while the characters who do all the work and, behind the scenes, run the show are played by women.

Nicki Davy makes a very strong impact as The Bastard, manipulating the other characters and agonising over the outcomes. Davy makes fine use of one of the most effective elements in the production: articulating her inner monologues in the style of a world-weary stand-up comic. Danny Childs is a sleek ruler carrying himself with the arrogance of entitlement and privilege.

King John: A Theatrical Film makes a major success of a minor play.

Reviewer: David Cunningham