King John, Swan Theatre, Stratford, to March 21, 2020.
No, I’d never seen it before either.
King John is one of Shakespeare’s rarely performed works. It lacks the poetry of Richard II, the memorable opening and dying lines of Richard III, the stirring words of Henry V, and a character half as engaging as Falstaff.
But having decided to give it a go, the RSC proceed to give it their all under the direction of Eleanor Rhode. The first half is particularly lively, with elements of farce bordering on pantomime. At one point the English and French are throwing pastries at one another in what might be termed a Great British Cake-off.
The choreography is extraordinary. At times there seems to be more dancing than lancing as the cross-Channel foes face up to each other. Yes, swords come out eventually, albeit briefly, and there’s even a boxing match at one point.
It's all quite entertaining, if somewhat straining on the imagination, as the intricacies of the dispute are discussed amid the prevailing chaos. The setting seems to be some time in the mid-20th century, judging by the transistor radio and non-mobile phones in the opening scene.
In Shakespeare’s day all parts were played by men. Today, quite rightly, gender is not a bar to any role and you won’t be surprised to hear that King John is played by a woman.
Rosie Sheehy’s diction and projection are faultless and she struts around the stage at times with a distinctly masculine tread.
Through no fault of her own, however, she lacks the physical presence to look much of a threat during the fight scenes. But then maybe that was true of John whose brother Richard (“the Lionheart”) was considered to be the man of war.
Despite, or perhaps, because the Conclave of Cardinals remains gents only, the Pope’s representative is played by another woman, Katharine Pearce - played for laughs at times with an accent reminiscent of one of the matronly figures of Coronation Street.
But the end of the first half is dominated by an extraordinary display of despair and anger, bordering on madness, by a woman playing a woman. Charlotte Randle is Constance, whose boyish son Arthur has a claim to the English throne.
The second half is much darker. It starts with a scene both chilling and touching as Uncle John attends to Arthur. And it finishes with John choking his last in a tin bath.
In between is an ingenious fight scene and a speech about the state of England, vaguely reminiscent of John o’ Gaunt’s dying words in Richard II.
The words aren’t as memorably resonant, however, despite a fine delivery by Michael Abubakar in his evidently much relished role as The Bastard: England is in a mess. The country’s leader has been held to legal account by powerful counterparts - all of which sounds vaguely familiar.
Pictures by Steve Tanner (c) RSC
For tickets go to: www.rsc.org.uk