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Review: King John (Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon)

The Shakespearean play still resonates in today's Brexit Britain

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Rosie Sheehy
© Steve Tanner for RSC

A leader at odds with senior politicians; a nation divided over the course of its future; a battle with an interfering foreign power for the soul of the country. Not the latest news despatches from Westminster, but the internecine warfare of King John. It's easy to see why Shakespeare's contemporary Ben Jonson said he was "not of an age, but for all time."

RSC debutant director Eleanor Rhode certainly makes the most of the bang-up-to-date modern resonances in Brexit Britain. There's the nationalistic rallying cry to free England from the shackles of a European yoke. There's the shouts of treachery at anyone who sides with the opposition. There's the increasingly psychotic paranoia as the shiny edifice comes crumbling down.

But Rhode makes it about more than that. This is as much a family saga of infighting and arrogance as it is about geopolitics or the history of the monarchy. And importantly, Rhode makes every effort to keep the narrative comprehensible. In this, it has to be said, she occasionally undermines herself with the scale of the spectacle she puts on stage.

Set somewhere around the middle of the 20th century in what designer Max Johns calls an "alternate universe", it looks sumptuous and glories in its chic aesthetic. Lizzie Powell's lighting reinforces the wildly fluctuating moods of the piece and Tom Jackson Greaves adds an element of unreality with his movement and stylised dancing. Rhode also uses music intelligently, aided by composer Will Gregory's wonderful underscore and a live five-piece band. Sometimes the welter of ideas overpowers the characters and text, but it's never less than terrifically exciting to watch.

Another RSC debutant, Rosie Sheehy, plays John, and the upfront obstinacy of the cross-gendered casting pays huge dividends in the king's slippery, mercurial character. Sheehy's performance is volatile, enervating and thoroughly gripping, and her emotional understanding of the monarch's gradual disintegration is immensely powerful.

She's far from alone in her watchability and presence. In a cast that has not a single weak link, there are too many well-crafted performances to list individually. Invidious though it may be, it's worth singling out Michael Abubakar's strident, bull-headed Bastard, Tom McCall's achingly tormented would-be murderer Hubert, Katherine Pearce's carefully comic turn as Cardinal Pandulph and a blistering, heart-wrenching Charlotte Randle as Constance, John's sister-in-law who becomes the chief victim of his cold-blooded ambition.

It's not without its flaws – the boxing match and the food fight fall into the ‘step too far' category, and it's never a good idea to shower your reviewer with spittle – but the vigorous modernity and visual grandeur, coupled with an ensemble of strength and perceptiveness, make this a highly recommended interpretation of one of the Bard's lesser-performed works.

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