King John – Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Eleanor Rhode

Reviewer: Katie Burchett

Neon lights, foam hands and political sparring in a boxing ring; Eleanor Rhode brings Shakespeare’s unsung King John to the Swan Theatre in an explosion of visual splendour. It is a rare thing to go into a Shakespeare play with no preconceived ideas of how it’ll be done, but from the moment its hungover protagonist cracks a raw egg into a glass and drinks it down in one, Rhode’s production sets a pace and a style that licks along relentlessly until the lights go down for the final time.

Set somewhere in the mid-20th century, one only needs to close one’s eyes to feel that one is sitting in on today’s Brexit war in parliament. Despite this, Rhode is careful to maintain that, at its core, this is a play about family dynamics. This is particularly prevalent during the spectacular wedding scene, which is underpinned by the constant domestic argy-bargy. From the crassness of enormous, gold decorations to a furious balloon rampage, the scene is executed beautifully, concluding in a full-scale, gloriously chaotic food fight. But nothing is done simply for the sake of entertainment, and just as it teeters on the edge of farce, the true gravity of warring politicians hits home. Every nuance and every laugh carefully and deliberately masks a conflict that bears an almost frightening resemblance to today’s political climate. The fickleness of those at the top resonates deeply. At its heart this is a power game, each player fighting ruthlessly for their place.

In a company of nearly twenty, there is no weak link. As King John, Rosie Sheehy gives a stunning performance, as courageous as it is detailed. This is an actor absolutely living within her role. She commands with an effortless authority, flips deftly between desperation and control, and finally shatters before us as her shell cracks off completely. Tom McCall’s haunted portrayal of Hubert, King John’s aide, makes us ache for him and the moral torment he suffers, while Charlotte Randle demonstrates great depth as Constance, arguably the true villain of the piece. She fights, manipulates and grieves and by the end is really quite disturbing.

The creative team too should not go without mention. Movement director Tom Jackson Greaves‘ set pieces of seductive sixties-style dancing bring joy in abundance, underscored by William Gregory’s incredibly groovy, James-Bond-meets-techno compositions. The contrast between the two halves of the play is particularly striking after the flair of the pre-interval action, the audience interaction, the music and dancing cleverly pave the way to allow for a stripped back second half. As moral standards disintegrate, the production takes a raw and vulnerable turn, the fun is over and the human cost of war is laid bare for all to see.

Vibrant, crisp and slick from the onset, the production scoops us up, shakes us around, makes us take a long hard look at humanity and spits us out again, its clarity never faltering. As the play reaches its sinister climax, an earlier line resonates: ‘Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!’ For all its ambition and blood shed, no one truly emerges victorious. Which at the moment is all too relatable.

Runs until: 21 March 2020 and on Tour           Image: Steve Tanner (c) RSC

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