“Whate’er you think, good words, I think, were best”
Given the ubiquity of productions of Shakespeare’s works in so many of our theatres, and in particular of certain works within the canon, one might assume that those that remain neglected remain so for a very good reason. But director Phil Willmott and the Union Theatre clearly do not agree and after the successful run last year of Double Falsehood, its disputed authorship notwithstanding, they have now turned to a play that was definitely by Shakespeare, but remains very rarely produced in the modern day – King John. They say things come in threes and after having seen Prince John in The Lion in Winter and in the RSC’s The Heart of Robin Hood, it seems apt to seen him all grown up in this play, even if it might as well have been three different people for all the continuity of character!
The play is focused on questions of legitimacy as John acceded to the throne at the expense of his nephew Arthur to control the Angevin Empire whose borders stretched far into France due to the land originally held by his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine. But he is not a natural-born leader like his father Henry II or brother Richard the Lionheart and his already tenuous hold on his kingdom is further threatened when the King of France throws his support behind young Arthur and demands his abdication. Thus John is driven to increasingly desperate action as battles rage, noblemen’s loyalties waver and to cap it all off, the Pope is displeased and is considering excommunicating him.
Phil Willmott’s uncluttered production makes remarkably clear sense of a plot which is often dangerously close to convoluted and makes a virtue of its simplicity. A chair and four tables are the only set yet they are endlessly reconfigured to create a grand throne, the ramparts of a castle or a banqueting table stretching the width of the stage; costumes are modern(ish) but non-specific, releasing the play from tightly defined context. This in turn allows the actors to fully focus on fleshing out their characters and drawing out the timeless parallels: the usual Shakespearean array of betrayals, revenge, murder, love and avarice are present but are given a fresh spin by the (relative) unfamiliarity of the story.
The play is at its best when focusing on John as a monarch. There’s no particularly defining characteristic about him, like say Richard III’s hunchback, aside from a ruthless hunger for power but it is this relentless, amoral pursuit that actually strikes home in Nicholas Osmond’s portrayal. Affably normal and likeable at first, there’s little of the regal statesman about him as he tries to charm his way through but as power corrupts him, his demeanour stiffens, the moodswings become darker and his wretchedness exposed in his desperate clinging to power, yet there’s still a twinkle in the eye – note the hilarious reaction to his mother’s death. He bonds well with Philip the Bastard, his closest man in court and the broadest, most entertainingly fully-rounded character in the show. He’s brought to vivid life by Rikki Lawton, a performance which is close to over-emphatic at times in the small space of the Union but whose energy provides a fillip throughout.
The issue that I found with the play though, and the reason I suspect it has collected so much dust, is its frequent excessive verbiosity, a recurring factor in the lesser History plays. Sometimes in certain scenes, it catches fire as in the magnificent face-off between Eleanor and Constance, mother of Arthur, Maggie Daniels and Samantha Lawson both crackling with fury, and assassin Hubert’s melting at Arthur’s innocence is given heartbreaking form by John Last; at others the actors struggle to impose vivid characterisations on the underdeveloped supporting roles, a lack of depth to so many of them meaning their impact is curtailed despite the good work from the cast. This is a particular shame as there’s so much exploration of ambiguity, both moral and political, hinted at which thus never comes to fruition.
King John is unlikely to ever join the group of Shakespeare plays that are put on time and time again, it lacks too much for that, but where possible, this production of the work has been imbued with a liveliness that results in the play feeling like a darkly tragicomic melodrama rather than a dry history lesson. That this is largely achieved is testament to Willmott’s vision and the sterling work of the company and though not all of it will be to everyone’s taste – I wasn’t a fan of the use of music and the stylised directorial flourish that comes near the end – this is a perfect example of how a very well-judged production can illuminate material of any quality.