“King John” by William Shakespeare

at the Swan Theatre, Thursday 19th April 2012

Arguably, it is only when witnessing a Shakespeare play in performance for the first time that we truly realise the Bard’s genius not only as a poet but also as a dramatist. This unknown quality is partly the reason for the success of Maria Aberg’s production of King John, but her superb direction is the main cause. The performance takes us everywhere theatre should, whilst throwing in some panache in the process.

The story, which deals with the turbulent relationship between England and France during John’s reign, here becomes a parable of family politics. Two families try to reconcile all by presenting the other with a suitor who shall be married to one another. From the superlative wedding scene onwards, however, individual arrogance and pride gets in the way and more than one death weighs on the minds of the participants.

By setting the play in what seems to represent a modern village hall, Aberg brings these familial tensions to the fore. The amount of rubbish on Naomi Dawson’s staired set correlates negatively with the number of people on stage at any one point, putting us in mind of those parties which wear on into the early hours of the morning, which see relationships break down and the truth spilt (though maybe not multiple deaths).

Adding to this is the decision to change the genders of the Bastard (Pippa Nixon) and the Cardinal Pandulph (the menacing Paola Dionisotti), meaning the women of this play are just as instrumental in events as the men. Although this is being deemed as the show’s USP, however, we forget the two roles were initially male; a hymn to gender blind casting if ever there was one.

More impressive is a fantastic cast who manage to give the words power without actually acting like the nobility the script dictates. The wide-eyed Nixon is fantastic, leading the audience through the twists and turns of the narrative and gaining our trust from the moment she steps onto stage to sing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ on the ukulele (a nice touch). In Alex Waldmann, she has a worthy partner, and he portrays John with calm passion, debunking the name of ‘bad’ he has been given. Good support is provided by Siobhan Redmond’s wise Elinor, Oscar Pearce’s somewhat idiotic Dauphin, Susie Trayling’s steely Constance and John Stahl’s sturdy King Philip, while

Aberg’s stagecraft is masterful. The wedding scene is frenzied in its drunken fluidity, and it countered beautiful by the final scenes towards the end of the play, shouted across the auditorium from the balconies. John’s death scene is like no other, and the production is soundtracked brilliantly by Carolyn Downing, who uses everything from Rihanna to Dirty Dancing. David Holmes’ blazing and striking lighting adds to the feeling of tragedy.

By making the play contemporary, Aberg also manages to comment on current discussions about Scotland’s place in Britain. We see that, although union between countries (like that between England and Scotland) can seem like a desirable thing to begin with, underlying tensions and differences means a permanent union is impossible (especially if one country attempts to take more control). More than anything, however, this is a deeply affecting production which reaches astonishing levels of emotion. King John is by a long shot the best thing the Royal Shakespeare Company is showing this season, and is perhaps the best thing they’ve produced since The Merchant of Venice last year. Though if you were silly enough not to enjoy that, this probably isn’t for you.


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