“Bell, book and candle,” that’s one of the phrases we owe to King John; as well as the great speeches of the rampaging Queen Constance and the terrific energy in those of the Bastard, culminating in “This England never did, nor never shall, lie at the proud foot of a conqueror…”
The first audience, still celebrating Drake’s victory over the Spanish Armada, must have loved that. The play spreads from a dispute over land in the shires to the ongoing territorial conflict with the French, the interfering influence of Rome and the constitutional future of the monarchy: it’s virtually a handbook of how Tudor England might have talked about itself.
The Bastard Faulconbridge, winningly played here by a notable newcomer, Rikki Lawton, is more complex even than his confrѐres Iago and Edmund; he slithers righteously through the political power broking as both contender and critic. And Nicholas Osmond makes the beleaguered King John a likeable wiseacre in a highly skilled technical performance.
Phil Willmott strikes again with his Steam Industry production, designed by Emma Tompkins, energetically deploying a cast of young pros and recent drama school graduates.
They dash around the darkened Union in greatcoats and Doc Martins, unimpeded by scenery (there are just four small adaptable tables), belting out the often difficult and convoluted verse.
But the energy is contagious and, for all the rough edges and crudity – Michael J Hayes, for instance, plays the repellent papal legate, Pandulph, with a jowl-shaking, eye-rolling self-indulgence that might have embarrassed even Zero Mostel – the play grips and engages.
Samantha Lawson doesn’t underplay, either, as the bereft and furious Constance, while Albert de Jongh simpers sweetly as an over-age Prince Arthur, and John Last keeps a straight bat as his troubled assassin, Hubert, trading hot irons for compassionate decency.
In that scene, as elsewhere, there are hints of Macbeth and King Lear, and the political pacts involving the Dauphin (James Corscadden), Blanche of Spain (Daisy May) and the King of France (Damian Quinn) are as intriguing as those in any of the other histories.