Review: King John

King John
Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford
Until 15th September

by Richard Lutz

So what does the name King John mean to you?

Is he the sneering villain in those black and white Robin Hood tv days- the one with the snide grin?

Is he the slack jawed adolescent lurking at in the background in that great Katherine Hepburn movie Lion in Winter?

Or maybe, getting pretty close to historical fact now, the wrong king in the wrong time when the barons made him sign his name on the Magna Carta?

Shakespeare wrote his play King John with a hint of all these. His monarch is erratic, mercurial, spoiled, and bloodthirsty enough order a sidekick to kill a child who could usurp his cruddy throne.

But in the RSC production by Maria Aberg, there’s a nice take on John as rock n’ roll king, with his tattooes, his 4AM look, his pecs and lats gleaming from a day at the gym. He’s the dude looking for the next party and bottle of booze.

Aberg grabs this little known play and thrusts it firmly in the present- a wedding party is a crazed and  noisy late night disco ( John gets to sing Dionne Warwick);  the grand dowager Lady Falconbridge arrives in motorcycle leathers; the innocent ingénue Blanche is a party queen who loves the dance floor and her little girl’s ballerina dress; his courtiers always ready to sing Abba’s greatest hits at a drop of a sword.

But the party must end and the balloons and tired  confetti stay on stage as King John, played macho by Alex Waldmann, watches his devious world implode.

His faithful and wry lieutenant is the fictional Phillip ‘The Bastard’ Falconbridge. If this character, with his insight, his modern irony and his wit were placed in a better known play, such as Hamlet or Much Ado About Nothing, he would be remembered as an iconic Shakespearean figure, a role which uses words to such great effect.

But The Bastard (who just may be Richard The Lionheart’s illegitimate son)  and the play are sideshows in the playwright’s career.  So The Bastard (and yes, that is how he is titled in the programme) remains  half forgotten, recognised only by Bard-o-maniacs and academics.

Intriguingly, The Bastard is played by a woman, actress Pippa Nixon, who makes the most of this  role- that of part narrator, part commentator, part court jester, into a memorable performance. It is her that controls the play, and she that has all the great lines.  And it is she that makes you realise what a magnetic character Shakespeare created.

Peeking behind the curtain now and hats off to two technical experts who make this King John so much fun to watch. Chris Cahill creates costumes that joyfully summon up those late night/early morning  1980’s discos well with party frocks and glitterball- era men’s wear. And set designer Naomi Davison who, to highlight the whole project, has a wall made of giant balloons. You were just waiting for them to burst onto the stage. Just waiting as Waldmann practically chews the carpet with rage as his kingly world turns bloody, shabby and ruinous.


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