Year of Shakespeare: King John at the RSCHistoryYear of Shakespeare

  • Will Sharpe

This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


King John, Royal Shakespeare Company, dir. by Maria Aberg, 14 May 2012 at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

By Will Sharpe

The stage is set. The stage is carpeted. The carpet is ugly. The plants are potted. The balloons are netted (the balloons are later released). The chandelier is art-deco (still not sure why). The lights are bright. The costumes are catwalk rococo. The King’s a raffish stud. The Bastard’s a woman. The Bastard’s also Hubert. The predictions were dire. The opinions were split. The people were leaving in disgust.

If so, then the people were wrong. On the evidence of the audience size on the night I saw it – admittedly a Monday – there may be some truth to the walkout rumours. Although the full cohort seemed still to be in attendance post-interval, we were a scattered bunch from the outset, but the response seemed overwhelmingly – and rightly – positive. King John is Shakespeare’s political sleaze play, and 2012’s Cultural Olympiad (and all the baggage that entails, which this Year of Shakespeare project as a whole seeks to interrogate) is predominantly about emphasising the Shakespearean now. Pictures of David Cameron and Barack Obama, along with a now slightly dated image of a group of protesters literally figuring Bush as a corporate puppet dallied by sponsors in the programme seemed to confirm alliance to this trend. Yet Maria Aberg’s production pulled away from such brisk topicalities, drawing its overriding energy from a very canny grasp of the play’s experimental oddities as a disturbing fantasy of legitimacy and the abuses of power, rather than a lucid depiction of recognisable events.

Pippa Nixon’s Bastard/Hubert composite started by trying to rouse us with a sing-along ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ on a ukulele. Just in case we needed our elbows jogged, a neon sign rearstage reading ‘For God and England’ was revealed post-interval while PJ Harvey’s ‘Let England Shake’ played the curtain call out. Edmund Kingsley’s pink-suited Chatillon –  the French all pastel shades and composed swaggers straight out of a Stella Artois advert – was then received by John’s retinue in this Marriott style conference room, bespeaking the cheap, 3-star grabs at decadence that are the hallmark of the grubbing, aspirant, middle-class local politician, all off-the-rack cocktail dresses, dowdy suits and champagne flutes. Alex Waldmann’s John was a notable exception at the centre, dressed in a variety of outfits throughout the night, all of which made him look roughly, in review shorthand, like a member of Kings of Leon (skinny jeans, wifebeater, boots, spangly suit jackets). This was no weedy mummy’s boy, but a smouldering, hedonistic seducer; one unusual clinch between him and Siobhan Redmond’s Eleanor seemed to suggest in fact that even his mother wanted his hands not so much on her apron strings as at the zip of her dress.

The hotel aesthetic was consistent with a powerful technique throughout of bringing remote and unfamiliar settings and experiences into recognisable contexts. It seemed less like international power-brokering than it did a family wedding gone horribly wrong. The wedding theme came to the surface with Louis (Oscar Pearce) and Blanche’s (Natalie Klamar) nuptials played out as a garish party, Alex Waldmann’s John taking to the same mic he had used to address the citizens of Angiers to serenade the newlyweds with ‘Say A Little Prayer’. This evolved into a full–cast chorus and shifted into Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’s ‘(I Had) The Time of My Life’, complete with dirty dance number. Its gift to the play was in showing, in this fleshing out of what are textually offstage revels, that no matter how influential people become, they still just want to drink, dance and degenerate, ideally at the right parties, when they get there.

After parties, of course, come mornings after, and one of the triumphs of the production was in its gradual accretion of signs of past merriment (paper hats, party poppers, champagne bottles, confetti), trodden into the carpets and littering the emptying rooms John finds himself in as the world comes down around him leading up to and following Arthur’s death. The moving scene between Arthur and Susie Trayling’s Constance, as Salisbury (David Fielder) tried to summon them back to the throng, showed this world of childish adult hedonism was no place for an actual child to be. Neither did this seem a world in which religion had any genuine purchase, and Paola Dionisotti’s Pandulph, looking like a slightly superannuated Anna Wintour, fostered the visual impression that excommunication from Rome seemed to imply no invites to fashion week, a far more painful exclusion to the numb of soul.

The aforementioned balloons were released, along with a veritable explosion of tickertape, which strewed the theatre, at the second-coronation scene post-interval. As we know, crowns in Shakespeare tend to make islands of men, and fragile, mortal men of kings, and this torrent of confetti covering an empty room served potently to show that the gloss had really come off Waldmann’s party pizazz by now. The second half was inaugurated by another musical number from the Bastard, Nixon this time singing Baltimore hipster folk-rock duo Wye Oak’s song, ‘Civilian’, which – perhaps inconsequently, perhaps interestingly – contains the lyrics:

I am nothing without a man
I know my faults
But I can hide them

Though perhaps those about keeping baby teeth in the bedside drawer reiterated the play’s sadnesses surrounding children (either infanticide or the yearning to go back – ‘mother dead’?) Either way, it was striking how much recorded music (songs recognisable in their original form rather than played live) was used in this production, showing a David Chase-esque (Sopranos creator) discernment in playlists as well as his attentiveness to their potential for use as Greek chorus. ‘Within me is a hell’, grimaces John as the poison takes hold, a hell shown brilliantly –again made familiar through an everyday, of-the-body strategy – by Waldmann dancing wildly to Frankie Valli’s ‘Beggin” before collapsing in a heap as the small cluster of scenes preceding it play out as a mad cacophony from the galleries. Cradled in the Bastard’s arms, in a setting familiar to many a Sunday morning cleaner, ‘this England’ contained little to entice the proud foot of a conqueror. A bold and brilliant production tempered by an intelligent critical distance from Aberg both in theorising the play and in applying performance methods to tell the story she sees.

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Author: Will Sharpe

Will Sharpe is one of the General Editors of Collaborative Plays by Shakespeare and Others (RSC/Palgrave, 2013), as well as a Chief Associate Editor of the RSC Shakespeare individual volumes series, for which he co-edited Cymbeline with Jonathan Bate. He is one of the General Editors of Digital Renaissance Editions, and has taught at the University of Warwick, Nottingham Trent University and The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, where he is Visiting Lecturer.