16th Dec, 2019

REVIEW - King John, RSC, Swan Theatre, Stratford

King John, Swan Theatre

The human cost of war and unchecked conflict is brought to the fore in this highly-varied but always engaging production of one of those plays on the outer circle of the revolving canon at the RSC.

Bloody battles, visceral threats, scheming and torture are all there in full measure, yet Eleanor Rhode’s production is one with an abundance of style and fun.

We have extremely chic sixties dancing, a suitably groovy live soundtrack from Will Gregory and all the audience involvement we’ve come to expect. It’s slick, sharp and very funny in places. Unexpectedly so.

There are some great performances to enjoy. In a tried-and-trusted RSC move the title role is played by a female actor and Rosie Sheehy takes on the challenge very well. From the raw egg hangover buster she consumes in the first moment to the poisoned blood she brings back up in the last it’s a strong, clear performance, utterly justifying whatever slightly unclear reason there may have been behind the cross-casting.

Michael Abubakar as the streetwise Bastard making his way to the top, and Charlotte Randle as a woman robbed of her child and her sanity were both worthy of note. the latter being the latest to prove the point that even in the cavernous spaces of the RSC it is still possible to capture the attention of every ear and eye in the house without yelling.

The movement in the set pieces and fight scenes is wonderfully choreographed. The bun fight which breaks up the wedding is joyful and messy right down to the groom finally surveying the destruction around him before disconsolately picking off a piece of his own – now utterly redundant – wedding cake.

Any chance of a lasting peace between this succession of wars is so easily shattered by treachery, angry words and jealousy – always, it would seem, under the malign influence of the emissary of the Catholic church in Rome, played in this case as a sort of glamorous Yorkshire Mary Whitehouse by Katherine Pearce.

Max Johns’ design is limited almost entirely to a neon circle hovering above a pair of wheeled trestle tables. The circle lowers to create a candled cell and the tables stand in as a walkway, a pair of crashing battering rams and even a slowly revolving platform for the ensuing fight. Simple but versatile and never overpowering.

It has become one of those accepted truths that Shakespeare’s work retains its relevancy in part due to its ability to mirror the world around any generation watching on. Naked ambition stays the same whatever the era, likewise jealousy, greed, pomposity and unconditional love. The profoundly divided and angry times we find ourselves in outside the walls of this theatre are strikingly similar to the railing arguments, heated words and lack of compassion that characterises much of the doomed, broken relationships in the world of King John.

In then end it’s part folly and part provocation which turns dispute into bloodshed, although the final stage picture of the Pope’s representative picking her way unscathed through the carnage to hurl cash in the air like confetti seems to suggest Eleanor Rhode feels the blame lies squarely with the established church. it’s a well-made point for all its having been made countless times before.

As trenchant a comment this is on the ease with which any catalyst can push division into conflict, we may be left wishing the Bard had written a play which could help us find a way to solve such problems rather than just put them so plainly on view. Now that would be a season worth watching.

Matthew Salisbury

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