king john cast

Tom McCall as Hubert, Michael Abubakar as The Bastard, Corey Montague-Sholay as Salisbury, Rosie Sheehy as King John, John Cummins as Pembroke, Bridgitta Roy as Queen Elinor, Nadi Kemp-Sayfi as Blanche and Richard Pryal as Austria. Pictures: Steve Tanner

King John

Royal Shakespeare Company

The Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon


‘King John he was a bad man, a bad man was he.’ So he figured – and feebly I only roughly remember the exact opening – in 1066 and All That, the glorious spoof on English History by (Walter) Sellar and (Robert) Yeatman, first published in 1935.

John Masefield wrote a similar parody, and so did A.A. Milne. They all agree that John was ‘a bad man’.

Any of you who have watched the unforgettable film The Lion in Winter, featuring Peter O’Toole in one of his best ever (non-drunk) roles, and Katherine Hepburn – stupendous and joyously vicious as his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, owner of much of France - will have been fascinated by Nigel Terry’s performance as the petulant youngest son, Prince John, plus a young Anthony Hopkins’ Richard I, seduced by the 16-odd years old Philip Augustus of France.

It was obvious what a pathetic, wheedling, jealous wimp John (apparently) was. A modern remake (2003) starring Patrick Stewart included a wonderfully hopeless, fawning John from Rafe Spall.

John of course was the future king of England, and increasingly little of France, which Philip systematically conquered. Director Eleanor Rhode (apt forename) delivered us all of this pouting personality and the dire consequences, especially latterly, of his ascent to the throne and through to his bitter waterlogged end.

Shakespeare’s play is actually called The Life and Death of King John. It was most likely written in the 1590s – it certainly feels in places like the Henry VI trilogy (co-written before 1592), for example. It could have been titled the Life, unsavoury Misdemeanours and Barmy Expiry of KJ, for Rhode fits all this in, and much more.

King john 

Rosie Sheehy as the eponymous King John   

I admit the opening scene – scatty, pathetic, crazy, semi-danced, pointless – made me fear (and certainly my colleague sitting next to me looked apprehensive) that we were in for a disaster. Why bastardise a little-known Shakespeare play?

‘Now, Chatillon, what would France with us? The answer sort of pre-echoes King Lear’s division of the kingdom - in that Philip demands ‘Ireland, Poitiers, Anjou, Touraine and Maine’, which he plans to put (under France’s suzerainty) the teenage Prince Arthur, John’s nephew, ‘Thy nephew and right royal sovereign’ Arthur’s father, Geoffrey Plantagenet, Henry II’s, third son  was now dead; but his son should have inherited,

Not a great start for John, and not a great start for this production. But soon all doubts were allayed. This turned out thrilling staging, for countless reasons.

First of all, John was played, with apt sultriness and snakiness – and in due course, inclination to murder, by a girl – Rosie Sheehy: her listed credits are relatively small – Paines Plough and Chichester stand out – and she, like many of the cast, was making her Stratford RSC debut. Casting women as men is rather the fashion these days (think of Fiona Shaw or Kathryn Hunter).

Not least wondrous were Sheehy’s half dozen changes of costume, expressing contrasting, febrile moods, one of designer Max Johns’ many brilliant touches: so was his 13th century ‘update’, 150 years on, of the Bayeux Tapestry, which hung above the stage like a severe reminder to all of their Norman and Plantagenet (Henry II) tradition.

John is depicted, giant-like, in a stark long robed John. When Sheehy stands in front in almost exactly the same attire, it provided one of the most eerie moments of the whole staging.  A circular neon tube makes occasional appearances. Relevant? Yes, probably.

There were plenty of eerie, nasty moments, for Shakespeare, possibly unfairly (but his sources claimed so) makes of John an almost Richard III-like villain. The script is riddled with the up and down dealings with France - portrayed magnificently by David Birrell, one of the best actors onstage, although looking a bit older than the 30-something Philippe, who ruled for over 40 years. Birrell was one of an ensemble whose speaking was simply superb – all round. What a joy to hear this rarely seen play spoken so admirably and clearly; we got every word. And pretty menacing words they were too.

Philip of Cognac

Michael Abubakar as Philip the Bastard, Philip of Cognac, illegitimate son of Richard I, The Lionheart

In the first part, near the end, we encountered Philip the Bastard, initially at odds with his true-born brother, Robert (Zed Joseph), but latterly awarded by Shakespeare a series of brilliant set pieces in which Michael Abubakar, playing Scots, shone – brilliantly – as much as anyone in this gifted cast. Edmund in Lear is a villain precisely because he is a bastard. Philip is the good guy, the shrewd commentator on the flurry of disastrous events which beset John’s reign, a purveyor of wisdom in fact. The events, in this play, strangely, do not involve the confrontation with the barons at Runnymede (1215), the year before John’s death, three of whom feature here in lesser roles: Pembroke (John Cummins ), Essex (Ali Gadema) and Salisbury (Corley Montague-Sholay, who has a rather splendid, withering outburst near the end). But we can see where things are heading: losing most of France must have cost the Norman aristocracy a vast amount of income. Confrontation – and even King John’s death - beckons.

Another of the stars of this production was Gianni Saraceni-Gunnar, not an RSC novice, whose performance as the doomed (assumed 12 year old) Prince Arthur, son of John’s elder brother Geoffrey and logically the true heir upon Richard I’s death in 1199, to England’s throne, was enough to make one feel he has real acting skills, which may continue throughout his teens and beyond. Arthur was shy, hiding beneath his mother Constance’s dress (Charlotte Randle, a rather appropriate feisty presence’s), but who emerges, finally assertive as well as comely, as a far more kinglike character (‘I do beseech thee, madam, be content’; ‘He is as as afraid of me as I of him’) than his ranting uncle. Children’s casting director, Barbara Roberts, who has cast over 70 of the RSC’s plays, clearly has an eye for rich talent. She certainly hit the jackpot here (Ethan Phillips and Aaryan Dassaur doubled the role of Arthur).

Where Saraceni-Gunnar most impressed was arguably the best, and certainly the most famous extended scene of the play. Hubert (of Angers), a mostly loyal follower of John, is deputed to put out the boy’s eyes (and castrate him, some have it). ‘He is a very serpent in my way.’ The scene between Arthur and Hubert (Tom McCall, his wonderful, insightful, shifting face reflecting all of these: ‘I would not touch those eyes for all the treasure that thy uncle owns’) is the most touching sequence in the play. Arthur (‘Is it my fault that I am Geoffrey’s son?)’clearly adores Hubert, his guardian but also mentor, and as it turns out, Hubert loves the boy Arthur. Hubert, dressed like a surgeon poised to make an incision, recalling Peter Sellars’ grisly culmination to Handel’s Theodora at Glyndebourne, resiles from his ghastly task, unlike Dighton and Forrest with the doomed young king Edward VI, and allows the beloved boy to flee. But Arthur riskily ascends the castle roof, and falls, tragically, to his death.

The scenes where Hubert first pretends the boy is dead, then owns up that he is free, a sequence of marvellously structured stichomythia – line by lane exchange, like Richard III and Queen Margaret) drew one of the classic explosions at which Sheehy proves so adept. She is a steely shit. John has sought illegally to snatch the crown (although at this time primogeniture was not a guarantee of succession – witness Macbeth, who was the cousin of Duncan - who reigned only six years whereas Macbeth ruled for 15) and now the one major threat to him still lives.


Katherine Pearce as Papal legate Pandulph 

The way Arthur’s fall was depicted – a party of loyal bier-carriers literally flying him over their heads – was incredibly original. Except, perhaps, that those not in the know will have not been aware what had happened, despite Arthur’s wonderful speech: (‘O me! My uncle’s spirit is in these stones: Heaven take my soul, and England keep my bones.!)’ Everyone, of course, blames John as a murderer.

The other trickster in the plot is -of course – the manoeuvring Rome, in the form of the papal legate, Pandulph. Here again, though one remembers Jeffery Dench as a superbly bossy Pandulph in John Barton’s staggering RSC production starring Emrys James; Richard McCabe (Cicero), Nicholas Woodeson, and Patrick Stewart have all played the title role for the RSC.

Here it was another shift in sex; for this domineering papal legate was played – shiveringly well – by Katherine Pearce. A breath of fresh air, spittingly enunciated, she (he) revels in her cardinal’s red, and exults in the way she is able to dominate the increasingly humbled (and desperate for alliances) John with one speech in which his philosophising could be Copernicus or Galileo. Unlike Henry VIII, beleaguered John bows to Rome. Every time her Pandulph came in, struttingly as if owning the place, you shivered. Each time she uttered, it was with a papal authority, and smugness, and command. What a bitch.

By a perhaps forgivable cut, we lost Prince Henry (Henry III, John’s son and one of England’s most effective kings: 1216-1272), father of Edward I, ‘the hammer of the Scots’. Some contrast between the actual child successor and the doomed true successor might have added some poignancy. He’s in Shakespeare’s script. But forgivable: Henry, born in 1207, who succeeded in 1216 aged only nine, can scarcely have been alive when Arthur met his end. A dialogue of the infants was not thus possible.  

Richard Pryal made a notably vigorous job of the Duke of Austria, whose alliance against John was not helpfully explained (by Shakespeare, or the director?)   There was Blanche of  Castile (Nadi Kemp-Sayfi), daughter of Henry’s second daughter Eleanor (named like her mother), contender for the throne when her cousin Arthur perished, wanly realising ‘Whoever wins, on that side shall I lose’. Lewis, Dauphin of France( Brian Martin), was dull until, much at his best, in a natty exchange with Blanche and a notable comic exchange later on; and the originally mentioned Chatillon, ambassador of France (Nicholas Gerard-Martin), a fine speaker  and  kind of forerunner of Henry VIII’s Spanish secret agent Chapuys, quite an appreciable though underscripted presence.

Rear stage blocking was feeble, but occasionally effective. Three crazy Norns in futile spectacles above were a disaster but came good in intermittent other roles onstage.

Did this cast win through? Yes. But one has to concede that Rosie Sheehy’s King John held it all marvellously – and cheekily - together. She barracked, wheedled, insulted and battered her way through. Even her hairstyling impacted. Her moves, clumsy at the start – deliberately? – proved one of her greatest, and most dazzling, assets.

Was the dance (movement director Tom Jackson Greaves?) relevant? Not at all. Just vapid. Yet it was all fabulously well-choreographed and executed. And the music? Will Gregory’s score, directed with some sensitivity by Yshani Perinpanyagam, worked a treat from beginning to end - one sensational passage with low sax sounding like an alto flute - not overdone, not ghastlily scored, not self-satisfied or overegged. Bits of fight (Rachel Bown-Williams, Ruth Cooper-Brown) impacted, although much didn’t. Darkening light (Lizzie Powell), especially for certain battle or confrontation scenes, was spot on.

A much-vaunted wedding feast scene was frankly a squib – Titus Andronicus without the ghastliness.                 

There are the germs of so many of Shakespeare’s later plays in King John. And that, apart from its own dark unfolding, is what makes this play so important, and ludicrously overlooked, in the Shakespearian canon. Is Constance Lady Macduff? She has several key speeches, and one of the director’s stupendous decisions is to leave Constance alone on stage - the Bastard and Pandulph receive similar treatment - for her lament (‘My son, my life, my joy, my all the world, comfort, my sorrow’s cause’.) Indeed a strange calm – periodic silence - was allowed to permeate this production. This is not just a failed medieval mother, of a past era that need not concern us. This is any grieving mother, anywhere, anytime: today. To 21-03-20.

Roderic Dunnett


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