I return with another Shakespearean tale. For it is I, Duchess of Hello Emma Kay, blogging about the realm of The Rose Theatre, Kingston and reporting back to you, my lords and ladies (and peasants) of the victorious Trevor Nunn’s King John….I can’t keep this up… what’s up my homies!
Trying not to dumb myself down, I knew King John was going to be an intellectual battle. Rarely staged, I was walking in mind blanked. King John reunited historical bigwigs with their version of theatre, leaving me alienated from the world I knew and loved.
King John was a highbrow and attention-seeking play. The narrative demands concentration so one slip up of “Eh?” and you’re left to scramble through the Shakespearean scraps. My understanding of King John is still incredibly shaky (no doubt this post will reflect this), but I will soldier on.
When Richard the Lionheart dies, his youngest brother John gleefully takes his place despite claims from the French that the throne should go to his nephew, Prince Arthur. As war is declared between England and France an inheritance dispute is brought before the King by Richard’s illegitimate son, Philip Faulconbridge. Who will end up on the throne of England… and what will it take to get that crown?
Being a spoilt theatre blogger, I prefer my Shakespeare modernised, raw and bloodied, and creatively experimented to attract a new audience. I want Shakespeare to escape from the middle class fortress and play with the unknown. King John scrapped that and focused on telling the story “the proper way”.
The first act catapulted me into a plague of confusion and forced me to play “Who’s Who?” Swallowing the pill of traditional theatre, the action was dry and wordy, but the cast were focused and determined. I knew I had to stop pratting around and concentrate upon this old worldly vision.
[King John] contains some of Shakespeare’s most original and genre challenging writing, but in the last third in particular, there seems to be missing passages and unexplained developments
– Trevor Nunn
Beginning with John’s “OMG” face towards his unexpected crowning, doubt is rife. Jamie Ballard reigns as King John with a wobbly, strong leadership, stamped with a huge question mark. He doesn’t look like our grand vision of how a king should look or behave, but Ballard provides the leading man with a fascinating depth of emotional discovery.
Despite his mother’s loving announcement, King John becomes the play’s hated centrepiece. Like an episode of Jeremy Kyle, everyone argues over the crown sitting on his goldilocks and this means war. Forget Harry Hill shouting “There’s only one way to find out…FIGHT!”, it’s Prince Arthur (Sebastian Croft) who literally falls victim.
Robbed of a crown and separated from his mother, Prince Arthur may be little, but he packed a mighty punch and his friendship with Hubert (Stephen Kennedy) bled a few hearts. Pleading for his sight, Hubert is ordered to burn out Arthur’s eyes. With the hot irons at the ready, it’s time to cue the puppy dog eyes and Hubert can’t resist.
Dosed in typical Shakespearean tragedy, Prince Arthur jumps from the castle’s wall and his life ends as a mess of broken bones on the floor below. Thanks to the candlelit wooden set design and television screens, the falling boy’s silhouette created a shattering “You, poor boy” scene.
Surrounded by the ghosts of Constance (Lisa Dillon) and Queen Elinor (Maggie Steed), King John reveals his sudden madness. Drunk on hysteria and grief, Constance tears out her hair over her son’s death and haunts King John with passionate anger. Watching a king cower to a woman’s dominance, Lisa Dillon was frightening in her sparkling navy dress. Personally, I loved her stage presence as she refused to seek joy in the grand royal occasions of a coronation and a wedding.
When Philip Faulconbridge (Howard Charles) bursts onto the stage, King John unleashes it’s unexpected firecracker. Twisted with a humourous, caveman aggression, Howard Charles provides the life and soul of the
party show. He unbalances the sensibility of the play and makes the cast and audience dart around his energised rants.
I think Shakespeare very carefully selected the incidents that he wanted to write about and for dramatic reasons he telescoped them into a more urgent timeframe
– Trevor Nunn
Perhaps this is the reason why I felt a little giddy with King John. Dramatic incidents were heightened as the cast regrouped for the hustle and bustle, and then continued on their merry way.
Staying true to history, King John was a long un’. Rivalling my Lord of the Rings cinema experience, the play was three hours long. My body and mind battled through many wars – the Siege of pins and needles, the Ambush of a numbing behind, the Battle of Water and the loo, and the Naval Battle of an empty stomach.
King John was a peacemaker to an unsure heart. It was politely traditional with dark bites. With a stronger second half, the play escaped its strict teacher mode and earned gold stars for its unfolding tragic journey through the past. It was a history lesson made fascinating and I was honoured to witness the crown jewels of King John at The Rose Theatre.
Big thanks to Amy Smith.