by William Shakespeare
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Set and costume design by Mark Friend
Rose Theatre, Kingston-on-Thames
Saturday 14th May 2016
L to R: Lisa Dillon, Jamie Ballard, Howard Charles, Maggie Steed
Jamie Ballard – King John
Howard Charles – Philip the Bastard, natural son of Richard I
Lisa Dillon – Lady Constance, widow of Duke of Brittany
Maggie Steed – Queen Eleanor, the Queen Mother, widow of Henry II
Ignatius Anthony – Duke of Austria / Lord Bigot, Earl of Norfolk
Joe Bannister – Lewis, Dauphin of France
Burt Caesar – Cardinal Pandulph, Papal legate
Tom Chapman- Robert Faulconbridge / Prince Henry, John’s son (later King Henry III) / friar
Elisabeth Hopper – Princess Blanche of Castile, John’s niece
Stephen Kennedy – Hubert, citizen of Angers
Dominic Mafham – Earl of Salisbury
Harry Marcus/ Sebastianan Croft – Prince Arthur, Constance’s son, John’s nephew
Chris Andrew Mellon – The Citizen of Angiers / Executioner
Dale Rapley – King Philip of France / Peter of Pomfret / Abbot
Miles Richardson – Earl of Pembroke
Carmen Rodriguez – Lady Faulconbridge, mother of Philip and Robert Faulconbridge, mistress of Richard I
David Shelley – Chatillion, French Ambassador to England / Lord Melun / Executioner
Jon Tarcey – Messenger / James Gurney / friar
Trevor Nunn is following his Wars of The Roses season at The Rose Theatre, Kingston last year, with one of the remaining two Shakespeare plays he has never directed before, King John. It’s catch-up time for him, as this once largely ignored play has had recent major productions at the RSC (2014) and The Globe (2015). Why was it so ignored? At our school it could be as simple as having a character called “The Bastard.” Maybe we like our kings having numbers after their names, and John, like Stephen, never had a II or III, VI or VIII to follow.
Trevor Nunn has assembled a brilliant cast. Jamie Ballard (King John) and Lisa Dillon (Constance) are both actors we’d book a play for on their own, but Howard Charles (The Bastard) is a major one for us, as we are huge fans of The Musketeers TV series in which he plays Porthos.
For more on the plot. see the review of the 2015 Globe production.
The four principle actors feature on the publicity photos above, and King John is a play with four strong roles, and two of them female. Queen Elinor is Elinor of Aquitaine. Most European royalty are descended from her in one way or another and Shakespeare probably didn’t know enough to do her history full justice. She was married to the King of France, had two daughters, then had their marriage annulled. She instructed Henry Duke of Normandy, 11 years her junior, to marry her. He became Henry II of England. She had eight more children, including Richard the Lionheart and King John. After plotting with three of her sons against her husband, she spent 16 years in prison. She ruled England while Richard was off on the crusades. And at 77 she trotted off to Castile to collect Princess Blanche for marriage. On the way back through France, her grandson Prince Arthur, aged 15, besieged her in a castle and King John had to come and rescue her.
So Prince Arthur isn’t quite the poor innocent portrayed in this play, though as ever he’s seen as about eleven rather than fifteen / sixteen. He was the son of the other great female role, Constance. Constance was married to Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany, the son between Richard and John. Thus Arthur, as Geoffrey’s son had a greater right to the throne than his uncle, the younger brother. He was the French candidate for the throne.
The Bastard, or Philip Faulconbridge, had his name changed to Richard when John knighted him. In the play we assume that John promotes him as a blood relative, the illegitimate son of Richard, and a supporter precisely because he’s a bastard and not a rival for the crown. He might have considered that William the Conqueror’s other name was William the Bastard.
The play starts with the French ambassador demanding that Arhur be recognised as king. Then we have a minor squabble, Robert and Philip of Faulconbridge disputing inheritance, and John has to adjudicate. When Queen Elinor realises that Philip must be Richard the Lionheart’s son, he’s offered a knighthood and court role, in exchange for letting his brother have the lands. The rest of the play has everyone disputing John’s inheritance. Let’s remember that in all the French / English divisions in the play, everyone would have spoken French and everyone had French titles and lands. Richard Coeur de lion though born in England, barely ever visited England in adult life, and John’s immediate claim was that he was the descendant who had spent most time in England.
We’re on the opening night, not even a “preview” but the first of the lot. Still with such an experienced cast and director, we relied on it being ready.
Trevor Nunn discusses his concept in the programme (I always want to read the director’s views). he points out that bits seem missing from the last third of the original text, and like “every other production in modern times” he fleshed it out with extracts from the earlier play The Troublesome Reign of King John, which Shakespeare adapted and rewrote for his company. Nunn sees the play as an ‘enquiry into the nature of political decision making’ and says:
The play is about not only the making and breaking of alliances, but about expedience, deceit, untruth, double talk, compromise and short term gain.
The Bastard (Howard Charles)
The casting of Howard Charles as The Bastard is central to the concept. Nunn describes the character as a young man who wants to be truthful, honourable and faithful … Shakespeare gives him confrontational soliloquies to express his contempt for political maneouvering. Howard Charles is powerfully built, and a powerful stage presence and voice too. For us, he carries over character from Porthos, aided by the dusty leather jerkin. This is a Bastard you’d want on your side, brave, strong, stalwart; just the kind of bloke a weak vacillating king with long wispy blonde hair would want to stand and confront his enemies. It’s not ever thus with the Bastard. In fact, the two major recent productions cast Pippa Nixon (RSC) and Alex Waldmann (Globe) as The Bastard, so both quite slight. Their power has to rest on persuasion, and they were, in modern English, a bit of a bastard too. Alex Waldmann’s Bastard couldn’t resist a sit on the vacant throne. This one wouldn’t dream of it. Waldmann was also King John in the RSC production. Nunn cast Waldmann as Henry VI last year, so must know the very different interpretation. Nunn has good textual support for his version. This is a man who can fight the powerful Duke of Austria, who is the man who imprisoned the Lionheart and dresses in a lion skin to show it. The Bastard can beat him and decapitate him. Incidentally, the Austrian head tossing by Howard Charles was phenomenal, and I wonder if he can throw it that far that accurately every time.
The set is from Trevor Nunn’s The Wars of The Roses in 2015 with multiple stairs and levels and platforms. I wondered about that, because they really only use the centre middle platform for the besieged city of Angier’s citizen, then Prince Arthur’s fatal tumble. The side bits were not employed, nor was the higher level. As this was only our second visit to The Rose, I thought it might be a permanent set and asked, but no, it is just The Wars of The Roses and this. They employed the same swirling lights projected down on the stage for transitions.
They use video camera and projection screens. That’s not unusual, but not quite like this. In the National Theatre’s modern dress “West Wing” Hamlet, TV cameramen naturally turned up to film King Claudius. In the Old Vic’s Richard III, Kevin Spacey was filmed wheedling in tight close up by an unseen backstage camera. The same backstage device was used last year in the Young Vic’s Macbeth. But here, a camera operator walks centre and stands and films some speeches and kingly entrances, which are then projected in close up, and black and white on two screens. I don’t object on authenticity grounds, though I’d be a bit annoyed if I was sitting behind his filming position, and wondered about a fixed camera off the lower gallery instead. They then use the screens to project odd bits of castle window or wall or parapet, sometimes B&W, sometimes colour, then they do the big battles with old black and white footage, and use the screen for Arthur’s fall (very effective it was there too). OK, it didn’t irritate me, and in some bits … the battles, the fall, I think it added. But I still ask why? It’s not a rock concert in Wembley Stadium. You can see perfectly well in this theatre anyway. They weren’t rock concert megascreens either, more like the largest size of TV.
Queen Elinor (Maggie Steed) and King John (Jamie Ballard)
The first half was superb. Jamie Ballard’s King John, had Queen Elinor constantly looming majestically at his shoulder, prompting, pushing, advising, indicating what he should do. She was still running the show. After the first scene, a fine chain mail headdress accentuates her military role. The long Siege of Angiers has the English and French armies besieging the city, which is understandably reluctant to open its gates. It will happily admit the English King, but wishes to know whether that’s King John, who has the crown on his head, or Prince Arthur, who is supported by the French. The outstanding scene in the whole production is when Constance, Arthur’s mother, goes for the grand Queen Elinor in a spitfire tirade. Elinor is Arthur’s grandmother, taller, has majesty and the weight of years of power, Constance is the she-wolf protecting her cub. Marvellous stuff from Lisa Dillon and Maggie Steed.
Negotiations: King of France seated left, King John seated right
I was persuaded too by the whole Angiers Franco-British negotiations, with John and King Philip of France (Dale Rapley) on chairs at the front of the stage close together, with their advisors gathered tightly around them … Constance, Arthur, the Dauphin, the Duke of Austria and Mellun for France; Queen Elinor, the Bastard and Earls of Salisbury and Pembroke for England. The pawn in the game is Blanche of Castille (King John’s niece, played by Elisabeth Hopper), blonde, beautiful and wordless in shimmering white waiting to be traded in marriage to the Dauphin (Joe Bannister). The Duke of Austria (Ignatius Anthony) was a malevolent presence at King Philip’s shoulder, constantly trading glares with the Bastard. This was done so well.
L to R; Duke of Austria, The Dauphin, Blanche of Castile., King John, Queen Elinor
The interval came after ninety minutes. It hadn’t felt long at all, time had flown, and I came out thinking “five stars” and was surprised to find my companion had loathed the costumes, interpreting the courtly silks as swathes of over-bright nylon (correctly, I assume). She was particularly annoyed that when Constance kicked out and lifted her skirts in fury, she revealed black sheer tights and white ballet shoes. Whatever hose they had in 1200, it was opaque (with white being the default Globe / RSC choice). There is no attempt at authentic practices obviously, but they claim to have studied then interpreted 13th century garb and the black tights were incongruous. I wondered if it was deliberate. My companion said the Bastard looked way the best because he looked as if he’d brought his own costume along from The Musketeers (to be fair, the Earl of Salisbury was similar).
Constance (Lisa Dillon) and Price Arthur (Sebastian Croft) – one of the two Prince Arthurs
The most frequent split of Shakespeare plays gives a 90 (as here) to 100 minute first part, followed by around 60 to 70 minutes second part. This second part was a full 90 minutes again. I find that unbalanced in almost any play. It’s a full three hours without the interval. I never recorded the length, but the Globe version seemed way faster and shorter (even on Globe seats). The trouble is the intrinsic “Duchess of Malfi effect” that is killing off or losing the most interesting characters way before the end, in this case Constance, Queen Elinor and King Philip. All three are greatly missed. The second part has Hubert, the intended executioner of Prince Arthur … in fact he only needed to blind him with red hot irons (and in the historical account, castrate him) so as to render him an impossible candidate for king. Hubert (Stephen Kennedy), with a lurid birthmark or burn over half his face is an important character, and he really shows his troubled mind over the deed, which he declines to do). He has an Ulster accent, one of only two regional accents in the entire play, the other being the friar, Pomfret, with Northern. Hubert is a sympathetic character, but Ulster and Glasgow accents are used too often to show a brutal character.
The good bits in part two are the imprisonment, intended torture of Arthur, Arthur’s death, then John’s poisoning and subsequent death. Jamie Ballard does great dying. He does great stuff all the way though, going from sneering and comically showing “ooh! terror” at excommunication, to displaying sudden apoplectic fury. All very good. The trouble is we have interminable and tedious negotiations featuring the three earls, the Dauphin and the papal envoy, Pandolf. No Bastard or King in view either. Nothing wrong with the acting in any of it. Joe Bannister’s Dauphin is first-rate, and Dominic Maham’s Salisbury’s vacillation between France and England is conveyed superbly too. The interest it has been assumed, is contemporary parallels: Brexit / An isolated England; A European superstate in the EU / the Papacy as a pan-European authority; Are the French and Germans trying to dictate how we run the country? Political negotiation and double-dealings. The trouble is that for both us, the real interest is the characters. Constance v Queen Elinor, then the delicious irony. Everyone turns against John because they think he’s murdered Arthur, but he is innocent, though only because Hubert disobeyed his orders. Then Arthur falls trying to escape, dies, and it all gets pinned on John. That’s the fascinating tale for us, accentuated by choosing such excellent actors for the roles. The political shenanigans, for us, are merely the frame, NOT the picture. So, for both of us it was that old history play issue when multiple nobles squabble, it’s not very interesting. The surprise is that Trevor Nunn made sense of Henry VI, probably Shakespeare’s worst play, by vigorous cutting. Not here. We both found the second half overall tedious, and definitely crying out for 15 to 20 minutes of cutting.
(later note) Dominic Cavendish’s Telegraph review was exactly opposite – He found the first half ‘naff’ and thought the second half saved it.
At the end, they only took a single curtain call. They could easily have taken more. Odd. But it was getting late, and having a two and a quarter hour drive home, I didn’t mind.
So at half time, I was running at five stars. The second half inclined me to two.
I like the director interview, plus the exploration of how Shakespeare managed to write a play about King John without mentioning the Magna Carta. Hidden signals in the text for political reasons? Good. Of course, he also failed to mention losing the crown jewels whilst crossing the Wash (giving rise to 1066 and All That jokes) and the “surfeit of lampreys” which killed him is switched to a poisoning.
LINKS TO REVIEWS ON THIS SITE:
Measure for Measure, RSC 2012 (Angelo)
The Merchant of Venice, The RSC, 2015 (Antonio)
King John, Rose, Kingston (King John)
Macbeth, Trafalgar Studios, 2013 (MacDuff)
The White Devil, Wanamaker Playhouse 2017 (Bracciano)
The Roaring Girl by Dekker & Middleton, RSC 2014 (Moll Cutpurse)
The Taming Of The Shrew, RSC 2012 (Kate)
Birthday by Joe Penhall
Love’s Labour’s Lost– RSC 2016 revival, at Chichester
Much Ado About Nothing – RSC 2016, at Chichester,
Macbeth RSC 2011 (Malcolm)
Volpone, RSC 2015
Women on The Edge of A Nervous Breakdown, 2015