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RSC King John at The Swan Theatre - Review

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by Alison Brinkworth (subscribe)
Freelance journalist in Birmingham with a passion for the dynamic theatre, art, food and fashion scene in Britain's 'Second City'.
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Gender Fluid Modern Version Revamps Old Play
King John, nursing a hangover, pads on stage in pyjamas to whip up a concoction of tomato juice and raw egg before downing it and dancing to a soundtrack of cool Sixties hipster beats. Welcome to a very modern take on Shakespeare's age-old classic.

King John RSC, swan theatre,
A stylish Sixties feel to this play


From the first few minutes of this new production by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), you know you are in for something exciting.

King John at The Swan Theatre in Stratford upon Avon heralds the RSC directorial debut by Eleanor Rhode and she's definitely made her mark.

She brings a funny, modern satire feel to this historic play about King John's years battling to maintain his power on the throne and abroad after his brother Richard The Lionheart's death. There's food fights, a hilarious gangster take on the papal power and a stylish 1960's beatnik breeziness to the proceedings.

King John RSC, swan theatre,
Rosie Sheehy is a mesmerising King John


Working around the idea of this war among the Plantagenets as a family feud that turns nasty, there's an undercurrent of The Godfather to this production, which stays at The Swan until 21 March 2020.

The famous wars between nations (and cousins) is told with an emphasis on sibling rivalries within a beautifully stylised set. The exciting opening gives a snifter of what's to come and keeps you eager for more.

Rhode's gender-fluid approach to the play with female actors taking on the central roles of King John and the Pope's representative Cardinal Pandulph pays off hugely.

The fact that they are women never comes into it, the winning formula is the interpretation of these characters and having such fine actors with a light comic touch in the shape of Rosie Sheehy as bad King John and Katherine Pearce as an equally dastardly Cardinal.

King John RSC, swan theatre,
Katherine Pearce shows a sinister side as Cardinal Pandulph


Sheehy, in her RSC debut, is striking as King John with a real presence on stage. She's got the youth to play John as believably brazen, daring and power-hungry with little fear of the consequences. Sheehy brings out John's unashamedly manipulative nature and you can't wait to see what she will do next.

Pearce, in a purple twin set and cape, is a tongue-in-cheek figure representing the Pope with the heavy hand of a gangster as she hands out wrath to those countries that won't fall in line.

You may recognise her from her role as Lolly on Coronation Street but in this, Pearce is hilarious while also deeply sinister. She puts the fear of God into everyone, even a poor audience member she clicks her fingers at to attend to her cape.

The whole production feels as though you are in a stylish Sixties movie where characters start doing the twist and posing with shades in their respective gangs. I half expected to see a young Twiggy walk through at any point.

King John RSC, swan theatre,
Gangsters and family feuds


What Rhode does well is commit full-heartedly to her theme so it all makes sense. The early fights between rival factions are shown as a boxing match that has throwbacks to the Krays in London; while or King John's second coronation, Sheehy has a mix of Audrey Hepburn Sixties chic combined with Queen Elizabeth II about her.

Rhode also has a strong use of visual metaphors. All the action takes place under a huge crown that menacingly looms overhead but the candles on the crown are eventually snuffed out after the final death scene.

Then there is the vibrancy of a food fight at the wedding between Lewis the Dauphin and John's niece Blanche. It's mad and unexpected but also feels very free and wild, signifying the scale of the tensions between all the factions.

Cleverly, the line of "just married" balloons are left half popped and in disarray afterwards, spelling out "just die" instead. One of many fantastic extra touches.

When it comes to dealing with the child Arthur and King John's murderous intent over this possible heir to the throne, the mood changes to be much more sensitive.

King John RSC, swan theatre,
Boxing matches and carefully choreographed fight scenes feature in the play


Tom McCall playing the King's aide Hubert, who faces "dealing" with young Arthur, gives an emotive performance as a man tortured between his loyalties and moral compass. It is one of the most memorable scenes of the play, straight after the interval.

Although the production leaves some confusion about Arthur and could be clearer on that front, this is a mighty new show that is distinctive for its eccentricity.

There is a spark of ingenuity and excitement that comes from this new production and makes it so watchable.

The RSC's new King John is funny, inventive, clever and electrifying. Do what you can to catch it before the run ends.

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Why? See hilarious, fresh new version of King John Shakespeare play
When: Until 21 March, 2020
Phone: 01789 331111
Where: Swan Theatre, Waterside, Stratford upon Avon, CV37 6BB
Cost: From 16
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