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Reviewed by:
  • King John
  • Gemma Miller
King JohnPresented by the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon. 09 24, 2019- 03 21, 2020. Directed by Eleanor Rhode. Design by Max Johns. Lighting Design by Lizzie Powell. Music composed by Will Gregory. With Rosie Sheehy (King John), Bridgitta Roy (Queen Elinor), Charlotte Randle (Constance), Michael Abubakar (The Bastard), Tom McCall (Hubert), David Birrell (King of France), Katherine Pearce (Cardinal Pandulph), and others.

Although King Johnhas a far patchier performance history than many of Shakespeare's plays, particularly in the past one hundred years, it is not difficult to see its contemporary relevance. From fake news to breaks with Europe, broken vows to divisive politics, this is most certainly a play that speaks to Britain in the twenty-first century. Director Eleanor Rhode and designer Max Johns gave their 2019/20 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company a 1960s aesthetic of clashing colors which gradually descended into a darker, more medieval feel throughout the second half. This collision of historical settings simultaneously conveyed a sense of timelessness while also suggesting that the post-war boom was a high point in history—one from which we have seen an unstoppable decline ever since.

The play opened with a hungover King John (Rosie Sheehy) staggering across the stage shading his eyes and wincing. From a transistor radio nestled between two old-fashioned dial telephones, the clipped voice of a reporter announced news of an impending war with France. John broke a raw egg into a tall glass, topped it up with tomato juice, stirred it vigorously, and drank it down whole. As he slammed the empty glass down onto the table, his courtiers entered dancing exuberantly, seemingly oblivious to threats of a "fierce and bloody war" (1.1.17) from Europe. This opening sequence was a riot of sound, provided by a live five-piece band, vibrant costumes, and psychedelic lighting that established John's rule as one of complacency and decadence. [End Page 259]

The set was dominated throughout by a large tapestry hanging over the back wall depicting John at its center, besieged by threats from all sides. It was a historical patchwork of mafia-styled men toting machine-guns, Elizabethan archers wearing pantaloons, a particularly grumpy looking Plantagenet lion, and Chinook helicopters. The aesthetic was a similar pastiche of styles—think the Bayeux tapestry crossed with Grayson Perry. Above the center of the thrust stage was suspended a large metallic coronet with a fleur-de-lys pattern repeated around its circumference. At first the coronet hung unobtrusively over the stage, but as parley descended into physical conflict, it was periodically lit from within with a bloody red light. This was particularly effective when it coincided with lines such as Blanche's "The sun's o'ercast with blood" (3.1.326). The coronet descended in the second half to hang a foot above the stage, functioning as an increasingly insistent and repressive symbol of violence. The blinding of Arthur, which opened the second half, was played out inside the lowered crown. Nurses wearing surgical masks lit candles around the top of the coronet which created flickering shadows around the darkened stage. As Hubert, similarly styled in a hospital white coat, carefully selected implements from a trolley and approached the boy, the coronet added to Arthur's sense of entrapment in a most sinister way. John's claim that his order to murder Arthur was inspired by Hubert's "abhorred aspect" (4.2.224) was literalized by having half of Hubert's face marked with burn scars. He was, like Arthur himself, a victim scarred by tyranny and trapped in the play's harsh and unremitting power struggles.

The blinding scene excepted, much of the violence underpinning the play was presented in a farcical way. The initial confrontation between France and England began as a dance-off and then transformed into a boxing match, with foam fingers liberally distributed among the audience. The citizens of Angers, three women positioned on a balcony at the back of the stage, tucked into popcorn as they enjoyed the spectacle. At Blanche and Lewis's wedding, Anglo-French relations broke down...


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pp. 259-263
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