A BAD KING, A PROBLEM PLAY, BUT A GREAT EVENING
Of Shakespeare’s plays this is one of the least done and loved: there’s disputed authorship of some sections, parts of the plot missing and replaced from another text. Sir Trevor Nunn takes it on as the penultimate achievement in his intention to direct all 37 plays: I was agog, since I missed the Globe’s version (part of the Magna Carta anniversary, though oddly the play ignores that milestone in the life of “England’s worst king”). I especially needed to expunge the memory of an ill-advisedly whimsical RSC version – a sort of Timmy Mallett lark, the warlike Fauconbridge transgendered and giggling in harlequin tights with balloons and a ukelele, and one vital character omitted. I had wondered whether the play itself was so terrible that it needed this burlesquery. Turns out, it doesn’t , not at all. I was engrossed for three hours.
Sir Trevor takes it without gimmicks, and with all the fleur-de-lys and crowns and .girdles the most medievally minded could want , and delivers a pacy, suspenseful, admirably clear and wholly entertaining rendering. Of all the ‘histories’ it is the most intimate and familially tangled: a sort of poisonous proto-Dynasty chronicle of tribal rows. Political too, of course: the cardinal legate Pandulph, a spiritedly bossy and comically affrontable Burt Caesar, reminds us that Boris Johnson missed a trick in citing only Napoleon and Hitler as ambitious for pan- European domination. Medieval Popes put in a pretty good bid for the obedience of political “Christendom”. Some of the biggest sighs of sympathy met both King John’s defiance that “no Italian priest shall tether or toll” England; and there’s another one later when John recants, and the French Dauphin irritably refuses to be told to stop the war he was previously told to start.
But in the first half it is the family rows which keep things rolling along. The women’s roles and ferocious tirades are reminiscent of Richard III, but more intemperate. Richard the Lionheart is dead; his mother, Maggie Steed’s old Queen Elinor, interferingly matriarchal as she pronounces John king. Even she is drowned by Lisa Dillon as the furious Lady Constance, widow of the eldest brother and mother of the small, sweetly embarrassed Prince Arthur, who from the start seems well aware that his mother’s pursuit of his cause will lead to no good. Even John’s niece Blanche (Elisabeth Hopper) , negotiated bride of the Dauphin, gets her moment of fury when she roars “On my wedding day?” as he fragile peace collapses thanks to Pandulph, and the war (indicated, unfussily, on overhead screens) heats up again.
It is played with immense vigour (sometimes at first perhaps a shade too much from the illegitimate, warlike Faulconbridge (Howard Charles) as he rants through his dense soliloquies. John himself is Jamie Ballard, with a fine dissipated rock-star arrogance in his face: sullen, chilly and petulant, with flashes of rage from the start, and wonderful sulky reaction-faces during the more intemperate family scenes and episcopal lectures. He becomes genuinely chilling in his quiet “I have a thing to say…” briefing to Hubert to put the child’s eyes out and kill him. When he is finally disintegrating, weepily contemptible in his frightened remorse and at last his death “shameful my life, and shamefully it ends” he is pitiable, human, lost. That Shakespearian moment of truth amid the politics silences the room.
Howard Charles as the Bastard , hard-man and warrior cynic, is powerful, Dominic Mafham as Salisbury impressive. But among that strong cast particular laurels go to Stephen Kennedy for a deep-layered, moving performance as Hubert the loyal reluctant murderer, and to his charge Arthur. The boy’s part is shared, but on the night I went it was a stellar, unaffected, taking, brave performance by young Harry Marcus. When he pleads, gallantly and scornfully, against Hubert’s hot irons he is mesmerizing: his death at the castle wall is the poignant heart of the play. Terrific.
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