Shakespeare’s King John is his least performed play and not ranked among his best work. Frankly you can see why. It is somewhat disjointed, and required the invention of an illegitimate nephew to link the personnel and narrative. Nonetheless, flawed Shakespeare still merits attention and Josie Rourke’s new production for the RSC brings clarity and humour to the convoluted story.
Richard McCabe’s John is a petulant, strutting, spoilt youngest son, his dubious claim to the throne continually threatened. He clings onto it through the political ruthlessness of his mother, Eleanor (an imperious Sorcha Cusack): his tenuous grip on power starts to slip the moment she dies.
Indeed it is mainly the female characters who have true resolve and understanding of the realpolitik: John’s niece Blanche (Morven Christie) has no romantic delusion about her political marriage of convenience to the Dauphin (Rupert Evans) but is genuinely distressed when (literally) pulled between the two sides.
As the mother of Arthur, the rightful heir to England’s throne, Tamsin Greig’s Constance is an exceptional performance: she is righteously protective of her son’s interests, coldly angry at the depth of their betrayal by the French and tragic in the aching grief at the loss of her son. She becomes the emotional core of the play.
The second half suffers from the loss of these key women, and the tone shifts as the fictional Philip The Bastard (Joseph Millson), the rakish clown and commentator of the first half, is no longer spectator, but has been absorbed into the court. He becomes the King’s confidante and advisor when John haemorrhages support after ordering the murder of his young nephew. Ralph Davis as Arthur is convincingly frustrated as the child buffeted by adult powerplay and political manoeuvring. He is genuinely distraught that his gaoler could harm him – it is no surprise that Hubert (Sam Cox) is persuaded to spare and protect him.
Wisely, the director has kept the story firmly rooted in its period, with superb use of music evocative of the age. The elegantly spare set, an elaborate tracery screen and gothic throne, evoke the richness of medieval paintings.
The play’s strength lies in the depiction of shifting alliances, and the betrayals practised by those desperate to cling to power. Parallels to contemporary political treachery and war are lightly echoed but never forced. With numerous excellent performances, this new production is rewarding, if disturbing viewing.