King John down, A Midsummer Night’s Dream to go. Trevor Nunn’s plan to direct all 37 works of Shakespeare is a whisker from completion with his Dream set to preview on June 16 in Ipswich. I am sure I won’t be the only hard-core Shakespeare fan to be working out how to fit in a jaunt to the New Wolsey Theatre.
Nunn’s latest production is King John has its last performance at the Rose in Kingston at 3 pm today – if you can nip in even for the second half, go for it!
Seeing it yesterday in the same row as Nunn himself I found myself watching this theatrical legend watching his play. Dapper in a dandy dark jacket, his face and body language gave nothing away but I hope he was pleased at the performances and the audience response to work that is not an easy crowd pleaser.
Nunn describes Shakespeare as his religion and is a true Shakespeare expert who makes sure verse speaking is spot on. Yet he does not see art, entertainment and commercial success as mutually exclusive having brought Cats and Starlight Express to the theatre. He’s also responsible for Les Mis but we’ll have to agree to differ on that one.
So King John itself: including the Rose production this is my third me after Guy Henry, RSC (2001) and Jo Stone-Fewings, the Globe (2015) in the titular role. I generally enjoy it much more than Richard II, a play with which it has a number of similarities – a king unfit for purpose and the only other Shakespeare play written entirely in verse.
To augment the second half, Nunn went to The Troublesome Reign of King John by that well-known author Anon, a play Nunn believes Shakespeare had been commissioned to re-write, according to the Rose programme notes.
Nunn argues the text of King John is incomplete and certainly the monastery scene inserted from The Troublesome Reign is a logical and interesting filler before Hubert’s abrupt news that John has been poisoned by a monk.
The changes elevated John’s death from damp squib to tear-jerker through smooth additions of chunks of Troublesome Reign, denuded of anti-Catholic propaganda-This is the fruit of Popery etc.
Cruel, selfish John fails to raise his hand in time to gain absolution – and this is a masterly invention of Nunn’s, deviating from Troublesome Reign in which John raises his hand just in time. I found myself surprised by tears.
My life, replete with rage and tyranny, Craves little pity for so strange a death Or who will say that John deceast too soon ? Who will not say he rather liv'd too long ?
The casting is very strong with a judicious sprinkling of TV stars who can hold their own in a theatre. Jamie Ballard is an utterly believable John, cruel and needy, with the chilling self-righteousness that made him such an effective Angelo in Measure for Measure (RSC 2011).
His attempt to shift the blame for his own decision to murder Arthur on to the disfigured Hubert is one of the most powerful moments:
“Hadst not thou been by,
A fellow by the hand of nature mark’d,
Quoted and sign’d to do a deed of shame,
This murder had not come into my mind:
But taking note of thy abhorr’d aspect,
Finding thee fit for bloody villany, Apt, liable to be employ’d in danger,
I faintly broke with thee of Arthur’s death;
And thou, to be endeared to a king,
Made it no conscience to destroy a prince.”
Stephen Kennedy’s indignant, heartfelt rejection of John’s vilification is a high point in a brilliant performance.
Yet no, no, not the hot poker aka the attempted blinding of Arthur (Game of Thrones Sebastian Croft) was surprisingly low on pathos and terror even if the reconciliation afterwards was deeply touching with a real sense of transformation in Hubert.
The Musketeer’s star Howard Charles was a glorious Philip the Bastard revelling in the ambiguity that makes this part such a gift to any actor. It would be very hard not to stand up for this particular Bastard.
The first half had a number of slow points and I was not the only one to drift off into a post-prandial doze. Maggie Steed as Queen Eleanor looked great but was a struggle to hear from the back of the stalls. Lisa Dillon as Constance was underpowered which is a real pity since this is another plum part. But Carmen Rodriquez as Lady Faulconbridge and Elisabeth Hopper as Blanche were worth waking up for.
In terms of staging, some of the tricks used seem very dated but at least there was an absence of the strobe lighting battle scenes that marred Nunn’s excellent production of The Wars of The Roses also at the Rose. The canned trumpet blasts and crowd scenes sound very tacky and either a live trumpeter or silence would be much better. The odd bit of piped plain chant would be all right too but was overused here.
The large screens over the stage really did not work for me either in Arthur’s death plunge or random battle/abbey scenes. Those of us in the back few rows of the stalls could not see the screens without ducking because of the dress circle overhang and this was very distracting but it definitely made watching the play an unusual physically active experience.
Huge thanks to Mr Nunn and the Rose Theatre Kingston! 7/10