The RSC’s King John is playing in rep with Richard III and A Soldier in Every Son: The Rise of the Aztecs as part of the “Nations at War” strand of this season’s work. It’s a fascinating notional concept, but one thing that Maria Aberg’s fresh reimagining of King John didn’t emphasise was a sense of war. This was the most domestic take on the play I’ve yet seen, a rich and inventive study of a key central relationship around which infighting and politicking provided background colour. A nation may have been at war, but surprisingly, this John seemed to be more concerned with love.
Although the setting was not pinned down precisely, the legwarmers, neon shirts and music located John broadly in the ’80s, painting a deliberately unflattering portrait of English popular entertainment. The kinds of behaviours that might, for lack of a better phrase, be popularly associated with a working-class Friday night out were here the default mode of the ‘nobility’: karaoke, miniskirts and cheap booze combined to suggest a society living for the weekend, oblivious to external pressures and ultimately torn apart when those pressures became unavoidable. It’s a typical appropriation of this particular period, but more usually explicitly associated with the Falklands, Thatcherism and strikes, the messy and cruel realities which the era developed increasingly committed ways of avoiding. Here, though, specific political resonances were avoided, with the production instead concentrating on the mindset of avoidance, the surrender to crude pleasure that could only be momentary.
This was clearest in the scene which will undoubtedly maintain the production in some semblance of notoriety, and which reportedly caused walkouts on other nights. As Natalie Klamar’s Blanche and Oscar Pearce’s Dauphin prepared for marriage, she changed into fairy skirt and platform boots, he into a light lounge suit. The guests arrived in hideously ‘fab’ costumes, and the wedding played out as the crassest form of Albert Square party. The two kings kicked off the karaoke party, which quickly developed into a full-cast rendition of “I Say a Little Prayer” before segueing into the theme from Dirty Dancing, to which the married couple danced the full routine. The audience appeared to be divided between those in helpless hysterics and those sitting absolutely stoney-faced. It was a bravura performance and, from my point of view, thoroughly enjoyable; its indulgence was the point. As Susie Trayling’s immaculate Constance finally crashed the party, sitting on the floor looking with derision at John Stahl’s topless French King and the stag party rejects that followed Lewis, the point that the recourse to marriage and celebration failed to address the serious political issues at stake was finely made.
Perhaps surprisingly, this was a production that, through drastic reinvention, kept uncovering aspects of the text often concealed in more straightforward productions. The war scenes of the closing acts were conflated into a series of voices spoken from around the galleries: the encounter with Melun, Chatillon’s interview with Lewis about the drowning of the French troops, and the Bastard hearing the news of John’s poisoning were cut across each other, creating a mosaic of voices that deprioritised the political events in favour of retelling the story from John’s point of view. With Alex Waldmann’s John staggering on stage, the war played out as fragmented reports and motionless noises, the loss of men reduced to a meaningless number. As the voices built to a climax and John’s staggering reached its peak, the lights suddenly went up and music sounded. Waldmann broke into a desperate and committed dance, throwing himself into pure movement which, as it went on, began gradually breaking down into coughs and choking. He staggered on for a while until he finally collapsed on the steps of the stage, slowly dying. John’s hedonism and avoidance were brought into a single climactic moment of realisation, another extraordinary performative moment that summed up the character’s journey in a kinetic and deeply moving sequence. The textual justification came in the young Prince’s plaintive “‘Tis strange that death should sing”, here tying this peculiar detail to the character’s overall arc.
Waldmann was a young and reckless king, openly sexual in his behaviour (including slapping his mother’s backside) and entering a rhetorical relationship of love with the Bastard, who he held closely throughout. He was most at home joking in front of the Faulconbridges or leading the wedding celebrations that ended in debauchery. After delivering his speech to the besieged city via a standing microphone, he punched the air in celebration for the benefit of his cheering supporters. Dynamic and charismatic, he was not the John familiar from history but yet this king made sense. His weaknesses were those of youth, of thinking before speaking and of reacting with his mouth rather than his head. This pushed Siobhan Redmond’s poised and elegant Elinor into the background, she enjoying the public flirtation with her son but politically operating more as a force of support than a leader. John was active in war and peace, and quick to crack a joke, even after the parodic ritual re-communication by Paola Dionisotti’s Pandulph, played to Phantom of the Opera-esque organ music, when he jumped up and immediately began ignoring the cardinal.
Dionisotti was a powerful presence, with pursed lips and a slight smile that belied her confidence in her authority. Striding around the stage in sunglasses and trouser suit, Pandulph was a force not to be taken lightly, but who was finally sidelined in the Dauphin’s rants. As the only really ‘external’ character, Pandulph was a reminder of what the other characters were overlooking in their selfish and inward-focused pursuits; she was the representation of consequence.
The boldest decision was the casting of Pippa Nixon as the Bastard, a role greatly expanded by conflation with Hubert. The role thus became even more of a co-lead, and the play was oriented around their relationship. In stocking and short dress, Nixon was a dynamic presence throughout. Lively and anarchic, always sitting or standing outside of the formal patterns, she riled everyone around her (particularly Mark Jax’s astounded Austria). Her gender lent extraordinary resonance to the play’s constant talk of love. Early on, she opened her hoodie and placed a hand on her upper chest, deliberately distracting John while her brother put forward his case. As the play progressed, the two entered a relationship that was deeply tactile but never reduced to mere sex; John was utterly dependent on the Bastard, holding her and staring deep into her eyes as he placed his love and trust in her, and she recapitulated her devotion to him. John was the Bastard’s connection to the playworld, for she spent most of the first half talking to the audience. The other actors would freeze for her soliloquies, and she fully inhabited the Lord of Misrule role by taking over and narrating or undercutting the action. Yet John captured all her attention, and provided the focus that drew her further into events.
The commission to murder Arthur was given in the heat of battle, as the bloody-armed Bastard met John in a spirit of high energy, and the snappy back and forth between the two spoke of two minds already in tune. Yet confronted with the child, the Bastard was finally forced to engage with someone other than John. Attempting to handcuff the child, but ending sprawled across the floor with him bound by his active pleading, Nixon captured in a physical and enervated way the struggle of conscience. The two practically wrestled, and Nixon’s energy became rooted in a fixed point of the stage, turning inward into her own conflict. As she returned to John, the terrified energy of both – she at her failure to carry out his order, he at his penance for what he believed had taken place – was channelled into a deeply disturbing sequence as John, enraged and terrified, grabbed hold of the woman he ‘loved’ and proceeded to enact an abortive rape on her, wrenching at her breasts and pinning her to the floor as she sobbed in simultaneous pain and regret. Although he subsequently apologised, it was a disquieting insight into the darkest aspect of this king’s compulsive behaviour – he needed to feel and consume, his drives geared towards destruction that would easily consume those around him also. His behaviours were simply unsustainable.
At its motif, the production continually revisited the notion of release. The second half began with the Bastard entering and belting out (not fantastically, but adequately) a solo number as John sat behind her, at the climax of which confetti cannons went off in the rafters and the background scenery – an enormous balloon cage – collapsed, sending beach-ball sized balloons around the auditorium which remained for the rest of the production, being kicked out of the way as the scowling English lords made their way around the stage. A steep staircase dominated the upstage area, down which Arthur gingerly made his way before jumping; a mirror actor stood at the top of the steps and threw themselves off and away from the audience as Arthur collapsed amid the balloons. And Pandulph’s re-communion of John threw all the tricks of pageantry and austere music at the king in an effort to enforce submission.
The other performances were largely fine, with a young cast pulling out some great moments. Iain Batchelor was a nervy, preppy Robert Faulconbridge; Joshua Jenkins stood out as a youthful and keen Essex, taking on a Poins-like relationship with John; and Edmund Kingsley made a fine impression as Chatillon, wearing light pink lounge suit and addressing his superiors on both sides with a nervous formality. He drew some of the evening’s biggest laughs when he returned to the French court with a plastic bag full of London souvenirs. Jax’s Austria was a threatening presence, made all the more ridiculous when wearing a horned stag party hat, and the Dauphin was great fun in his superficial flirations and complaints. The group moments were less impressive, with the Chorus representing the people of Angiers far too choreographed and stylised to be compelling. In the play’s quieter, more traditional moments, Trayling delivered a fine lament as Constance; however, to my mind, the production didn’t show enough interest in these aspects. The problem with such a noisy production is that moments of quietness felt underprepared by comparison. Much of the play was actually quite slow, a slowness mitigated by the visual interest for most of the production but which came out to the production’s detriment when the bag of tricks was temporarily withdrawn.
While the plot was sidelined (the nobles were almost indistinguishable from one another and the war story given very little attention), this was a clear and accessible King John. Ultimately, though, it was all about the central relationship. The climax to the penultimate scene saw the Bastard declaring her fortitude to hear John’s sufferings with the words “I am no woman” repeated three times, setting up an emotional conclusion that saw the Bastard finally confront her human connection to John. The final scene was played with just John, Henry and the Bastard on stage, and John died in the Bastard’s arms to her screams. It was a deeply moving conclusion that completed the Bastard’s arc, showing her entirely exhausted by her devotion to John, she drawn in by his charisma and connection yet finally abandoned. This was not an easy King John, and no doubt one that will divide its audience, but the freshness and tight emotional focus of the production dug something genuinely new, yet entirely in the spirit of the play, from a too-neglected text.