Richard Lutz takes his pew for King John at Stratford’s Swan Theatre.
You know you’re deep into Elizabethan bloody theatre when there is a stage direction: “Enter The Bastard with Austria’s head.”
Yes indeed, Shakespeare wanted to give the groundlings their money’s worth back in the late 1590’s when he wrote this account of the final days of King John, the younger brother of Richard the Lionheart.
Most of us know John as the monarch who was frogmarched to Runnymede to sign the Magna Carta. But Shakespeare has other ideas and his play, at The RSC’s Swan Theatre, is about the violent feuds that led to his humiliating demise.
So we have John, his dynastic enemies within the Plantagenet family and his political enemies in France, all jostling for power and kingdoms.
Director Eleanor Rhode has decided to gender swap using female actors for both John (though the king remains a ‘he’ in dialogue) and as the venal papal legate Pandolph. Rhode also turns her back on historic set and costume and lands it dead centre in the sharp suited 1960’s complete with turtle necks, rock and roll, lots of sunglasses, beehives, suede and high heels.
It all adds up to a snappy, sometimes sardonic, play that reveals how, basically, whether in 1200 or 1965, everyone is out for him/herself. The only credible character is the aforementioned Phillip the Bastard, the fictional illegitimate son of the dead Richard the Lionheart. He is wise, honest and always hits the mark in commenting on the twists and turns of early 13th politics and engages ruthlessly with his enemies, as above, when he beheads (happily, offstage) The Archduke of Austria and displays his gory battle trophy to King John.
Understudy Nadi Kemp-Sayfi stepped up to the plate as King John due to illness and she brought into sharp focus the ineptitudes and shortcomings of John. Katherine Pearce (above), as the dangerous Papal legate, was a hoot with her take on a nasty swaggering power dresser out for herself. One minute she’s all fun and games and the next laden with the poison of a snake.
Despite these strong performances, this production has problems even with its glitz. The ending follows neither history nor Shakespeare’s story. Rhode goes her own way and, if you lined up 100 fellow playgoers on the night, I reckon there would have been a hundred different versions of the final scene and what she ultimately meant to say about dynastic politics, Christianity and the state of a rowdy rebellious England. A bit of a muddle there.
But sterling work onstage saves this play. Music composer Will Gregory from Goldfrapp sets the demi monde mood. Set design includes a Bayeux Tapestry affair that tells the tale of victory and defeat. Plus, there’s Michael Abubakar as the keen eyed Philip the Bastard. He is punchy, witty, an absolute dynamo of energy and nerve. His heart is in the right place and a late line sums up Shakespeare’s take on the whole violent shambolic epoch: “Mad world,” he says balefully. “Mad kings. Mad composition.”