Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Trevor Nunn
Reviewer: Jon Wainwright
Like most of Shakespeare’s kings, John is not cut out for a leadership role. This is a world in which the Duke of Austria wears a lion’s pelt at court, where his late brother had a lion’s heart, and where his own mother looks splendid in chain mail.
Jamie Ballard gives a convincing portrayal of an unconvincing and incongruous character who is the uneasy occupant of England’s throne. John’s bundle of insecurities are no longer hidden by the anonymity of being the youngest son. Now, so long as he turns his head to prompt them, his courtiers will laugh at his jokes where once they would have sniggered behind his back. With his lank, shoulder-length, flaxen-coloured hair, Ballard’s John is like the second synth in a prog rock tribute act who finds himself thrust onto the big stage, without the big talent to match. Petulant outbursts that would be out of place in a pub dressing room are now amplified to England’s shame and heard all around Europe.
As if to draw attention to his illegitimacy as a ruler, to the possibility that he is only half a king, he insists on getting crowned twice, first during the opening scene and again after the interval. To make things worse, and through no fault of his own, he is surrounded by men and women, and even by a priest and a child, who each manage to show him up in some way, so instead of personifying his nation’s best qualities, he is constantly diminished and humiliated on all sides.
In one scene especially, Trevor Nunn’s direction brilliantly embodies his status as a political pygmy. John and the King of France are holding hands, about to seal a peace treaty. Around them crowd Earls and an Ambassador, miscellaneous Lords and a Papal legate, a Queen, a Princess, and a woman who would be the mother of a king, all clamouring to have their voice heard. A king should stand alone, and stand out as God’s instrument of rule, his only substitute. Instead, John is at the centre of a fractious nest of rival interests, not a healthy coalition, his incompetence orchestrating the discord. This tableaux is the epitome of dysfunctional government.
Several strong female characters dominate the first half of the play, including John’s sister-in-law, Constance (mother of Arthur, his rival for the throne), and his own mother, Queen Elinor. Lisa Dillon as “ambitious Constance” soon warms to the challenge of defending her son’s rights, kindling “France and all the world” to fight on her behalf. She’s not one for the quiet life, and she’s not easily intimidated, except perhaps by Maggie Steed’s Elinor, who stirs her own son “to blood and strife” and is equally at home on the battlefield as at court. John’s one indisputable advantage over Arthur is age, but again he suffers in comparison. In the performance reviewed, Arthur was played by Sebastian Croft, a slender young boy dwarfed by the adults around him. And yet he displays a maturity and courage beyond his years, coping with a particularly harrowing experience (involving a red hot poker) without crying like a baby (as this reviewer almost certainly would be).
Both these mummies’ boys, however, pale next to the “mounting spirit” of Philip Faulconbridge, every inch his father’s son, his father being King Richard Coeur-de-lion (the very pinnacle of the “proper man”). Howard Charles is superb as the strong centre of this production, from first to last an active, martial presence on stage. At one point he addresses two kings – “Your royal presences be ruled by me” – his manner more command than entreaty. Like the Black Prince several generations later, he is another warlike Plantagenet king England never had. Despising “smooth-faced gentleman” and “tickling commodity” and “vile-concluded peace” he is all for “honourable war” and the heat of battle. He is lead guitar and the legendary vocal capable of making a whole stadium rock.
Princess Blanche of Castile, played by Elisabeth Hopper, speaks to the consequences of this appetite for settling disputes through violence, and speaks for all who prefer peace. She has connections to both England and France: “Whoever wins, on that side shall I lose”. We might expect the church and religion to be on her side, on the side of peace, but the character of Cardinal Pandulph, the papal legate (played with robust authority by Burt Caesar), is as belligerent as Faulconbridge, and as eager to foment war to protect the interests of Rome. So, when Pandulph excommunicates John after he’s accused the pope of selling “corrupted pardons” we are rooting for John, even though he’s behaving like a spoilt adolescent. We also have some sympathy for a man beset by difficulties beyond his control, confused by “calm words folded up in smoke” and unable to see clearly how to reign.
There is no equivalent of Eastcheap, and little in the way of comedy or low-life shenanigans, but this production does much to make us wonder why this play is rarely produced. After listening to his mother’s long and heartfelt harangue in the French camp, as any modern boy might Arthur tells her in effect to shut up and stop embarrassing him: “I do beseech you, madam, be content.” The routine slog of staged battle scenes is avoided by the simple expedient of having two big screens displaying filmed re-enactment action (and these screens are also used for relaying live action, just as at a modern concert, complete with copious amounts of dry ice). The sturdy dark set provides a spartan backdrop against which the rich cloth of gold and flowing costumes acquire even greater iridescence.
Trevor Nunn successfully introduces narrative material from an earlier play that helps make sense of an otherwise incomplete text. Given the complexities of the story, there is a surprising simplicity, and empathy, at the end. Now that his “soul hath elbow room” John realizes that few will think he has died “too soon”. He knows that his wealth was acquired more through plunder than through trade: “How have I lived but by another’s loss?” And he recognizes the name by which he will be remembered: “Lackland.” In keeping with the play’s dominant theme of weak kingship, he also lacks the final word, which goes to the mighty Faulconbridge (the natural leader of the Brexit campaign if he were alive today): “This England never did, nor never shall, / Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror.”
Runs until 5th June 2016| Image: Mark Douet