Being a rarely produced Shakespeare play, King John will be unfamiliar to many. As such, it might be safer to avoid any risks and give people what they were expecting: a Shakespearean history play. Thankfully, this was not a concern troubling director Phil Willmott, who has uncovered the farcical comedy of the fight for the English throne in this energetic production.
The audience are presented with a dimly-lit, spacious stage area containing only four tables, two chairs and some lingering smoke. So far, so serious. This changes as the cast burst in, accompanied by a strangely comical and jaunty fanfare, and the laughter begins. King John (Nicholas Osmond) opens his interrogation of the French Ambassador with quite a heightened, flippant tone making for a very modern-sounding delivery. At first this worried me as I expected to see more gravitas from the King, even one as deluded as John, but I quickly came to love the ridiculousness of a man so obsessed with his own power he could only be a caricature. The timing is on the button and there are some wonderful directorial flourishes: John clicking his fingers to have his speech to the citizens of Angers underscored by stirring music was only bettered by the the French King (Damian Quinn) clicking his fingers for his own 'Allo 'Allo-style theme tune. I cannot fail to mention Cardinal Pandulph delicately tucking into a French Fancy as the monarchs bicker around him.
After what seemed almost a pantomime of laughs in the first half, most of the characters experience a more serious conclusion after the interval. Here is where James Corscadden as Dauphin Louis comes into his own. After the doe-eyed (political) marriage to the wonderfully sweet and naive Blanche (Daisy May), Louis, with his menacing stare and purposefully-delivered Irish tones, has far more presence than his slender physique would suggest. Another strong performance comes from John Last who skillfully switches from the clown-like Citizen of Angers with his nervous indecision to the conscience-afflicted assassin Hubert, steeling himself to burn out the eyes of the King's young nephew in a moving scene.
In the programme, Willmott explains his use of Max Stafford Clark's "Actioning" technique whereby every phrase of the play is given a different and very specific direction; providing light and shade to each speech. As Philip, the bastard son of previous King Richard I (John's elder brother), Rikki Lawton makes good use of the technique in delivering some lengthy monologues to the audience. As a narrator in these speeches, he explains the crux of the play: that of how morals and beliefs can be so quickly set aside by commodity and the human need for power. He ridicules those in authority as they change their policies for the sake of PR. An analogy not lost in modern times. Despite seeming to be fighting a cold during the performance, Lawton showed great, if not a little too much, energy and was a joy to watch. My only question here is whether or not each character achieved enough light and shade. There is an opportunity to play actions that contradict the expectation of a speech: for instance, finding humour in a tragic moment. The scene in which Lady Constance tears her hair as her son loses his claim to the throne could have benefited from such opposition. But this is a small criticism of a strong performance by Samatha Lawson, who, like the rest of the company, understood exactly what they were saying -- making some long and complicated speeches surprisingly easy to follow.
King John is played comically throughout with an almost psychopathic disconnection to emotion or the severity of his situation. He shrugs off his mother's death and answers his son's enquiry about his own health with “Poisoned,” as if he's stating the obvious, and only he can see what's happening in world of traitors and fools who, in sinister slow motion, spiral a dance about him. Again, I would like to have felt John connected to his crumbling monarchy with more gravity than buffoonery but I think this is a product of taking an admirable risk with what could have been rather serious from beginning to end.
Willmott's direction is superb. The cast make full use of the space with background action helping to tell the story. This, along with some well-designed costumed, background music and slick scene changes keep the energy running throughout. All the elements came together for a thoroughly entertaining night which sets the bar for future productions.