Following on from his successful The Wars of the Roses season at the end of last year, Trevor Nunn has returned to the Rose Theatre to direct one of Shakespeare’s rarely played works, King John. Its running could not be more timely. Famously, the play cuts out the focal point of John’s reign (the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215), instead looking at the politics of the time in terms of England’s place in an unsettled Europe. Sound familiar?
John, somewhat dubiously, takes the throne after his brother’s death – his nephew (& rival for the crown), young Prince Arthur, seeks help from the French until King Philip makes an unlikely peace with his English counterpart. Needless to say, this doesn’t last long; soon the old foes are warring again, and England is excommunicated. This effectively shuts them out of Europe, throwing the country into turmoil. Stability is only regained by the king acceeding to Rome’s will, prior to his untimely (& unnatural) death.
The Rose is a perfect setting for Elizabethan drama, and Mark Friend’s set design brings a real sense of authenticity to proceedings. A simple wooden structure on three levels, with a single mechanical element (a plinth which rises from the floor) that is used in occasional scenes. Paul Pyant’s lighting design works brilliantly in conjunction with this. A particularly well-considered moment takes place during the second act, showing the stark lighting of a monastery. Friend is also responsible for designing the costumes, which are simply stunning – exactly what you’d hope for in a medieval drama.
Somewhat bizarrely, the production features two large television screens hanging up in the highest level of the set. On these are generally shown ‘scene setting’ images, such as a row of tents or stained glass windows. They also play some video clips to show the moments of battle – as the screens are quite small & high up, this isn’t particularly effective. They also attempt to depict a character falling to their death by way of a slow-moving animation. Though this moment in the play is undeniably a challenge to stage, this is not the most convincing way around it.
Some scenes are filmed by camera crew & projected live from the screens. Whilst Nunn references rolling news channels in the programme, this concept does not work in practice. Its anachronism jars with the rest of the production, and there doesn’t seem to be any consistency in its employment. In short, it feels like a gimmick that hasn’t paid off.
The relatively large company means there isn’t too much doubling up – with a plot full of political intricacies, the last thing you need is confusion over who’s who in a scene! Where a member of the cast does play more than one character, this is covered well by costume changes such as the addition of a hood.
Jamie Ballard plays the titular role, portraying the king as immature & very unwilling to take responsibility for his actions – and their consequences, whether direct or indirect. He does well to get some laughs when John is behaving particularly childishly. This is especially prominent when he is around his mother, Queen Elinor (Maggie Steed), and is reminiscent of Prince John in Disney’s version of Robin Hood! This is a stark contrast to his moving final moments, in which he finally shows some maturity.
The standout performance, however, comes from Howard Charles as Philip Faulconbridge. This character is largely fictional and acts as a bit of a guide for the audience, with several passionate soliloquies bookmarking moments in the play. Charles completely immerses himself in his role and isn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. Philip comes across as the most rounded character of them all, thanks to a combination of Shakespeare’s writing (“‘Twas ever thus and will be”) and Charles’ bold & witty portrayal.
My verdict? A decent attempt at a timely revival – a bit confused in places, but some top-notch performances make this a worthwhile watch.
King John runs at the Rose Theatre Kingston until 5 June 2016. Tickets are available online and from the box office.
Post courtesy of Theatre Bloggers: www.theatrebloggers.co.uk