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 The Theatreguide.London Review


King John
The Pit 2001-2002

King John is Shakespeare's least-produced play, and even the Royal Shakespeare Company hasn't done it for 13 years. That alone would make this new production a must for Shakespeare buffs, even if it weren't as good as it is.

Very briefly, King John (the Magna Carta one, brother of Richard the Lionhearted), backed by his soldier mother and by Richard's recently discovered bastard son, must defend his crown against the claim of another nephew, Arthur, supported by the King of France.

Battles are fought, truces made and broken, and several wild cards - papal intervention, an accidental death, one double-cross too many - affect things as much as the conscious efforts of the principals.

Gregory Doran's production is crisp and clear, keeping the plot moving along briskly, while noting the moral ambiguities of almost every character. If it doesn't convince you that this is a lost masterpiece, it does hold your interest and reveal a hard-edged cynicism about claims to honour that is unusual for Shakespeare.

Guy Henry has usually been cast by the RSC in eccentric comic roles (He's also playing Malvolio this season), and he uses his skill to find all the humour in the king, as well as to flesh out the character in an intriguing way. His John is immature and insecure, an arrested adolescent who never really grows into his job, and who is often driven more by ill-considered whim than by political or military wisdom.

But, as in Henry VI, Shakespeare does not really make the king the hero of his own play, but more a peripheral observer of the machinations of others.

The real driving forces on John's side are his mother and nephew. Jo Stone-Fewings plays the Bastard as attractively earthy and practical, able to see clearly through all the posing and pretenses of the others, and to laugh at them with a very modern-feeling ironic distance. But he also makes it clear that the Bastard has more honour, loyalty and native intelligence than the rest of the cast put together, making him the real moral centre of the play.

Alison Fiske makes Queen Eleanor a butch old broad whose high energy and no-nonsense delight in life make her irresistible, and she is missed when the play drops her fairly early.

I saw an understudy, Victoria Duarri, as Arthur's mother Constance, and she really wasn't up to the role, capturing some Ophelia-like pathos but none of the tragic and moral grandeur the character should have.

John Hopkins gives the French Dauphin the attractive manliness of a simple Hotspur-like soldier, and David Collings is appropriately slimy as the papal legate ready to excommunicate and recommunicate (if that's the word) as it meets his own political agenda.

There's some nice spectacle, including a couple of beautiful examples of the RSC's patented ability to make trumpet sounds and a few people rushing about with banners evoke an entire battle.

But the real pleasure lies in watching a play full of characters who are really not up to the job of shaping history finding their ad hoc actions shaping it for them. And, of course, the pleasure of adding this rarity to one's theatre-going checklist.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - King John - RSC Pit 2001