Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 28 March, 2001

While Northern Broadsides beat the Royal Shakespeare Company to the punch by a couple of weeks with the first major production of King John in a decade or more, Gregory Doran's production in the Swan at Stratford is the more watchable; moreover, the problems with the play are not fictitious, and Doran goes some though not the whole way towards resolving them.

The pain "problem", compared to Shakespeare's other histories, is that John is neither a good nor bad king, a good nor bad person, nor let down by a single tragic flaw. This, for once, is not a history play about how the throne of England is well or ill served by its occupant, but rather one in which the powers of England, France and the Papacy are alike motivated by shifting priorities of pragmatism, of what seems the most useful course at a given moment. When the English and French, on the brink of war over the English throne and attendant French lordships, are ranged outside the town of Angiers which has vowed to admit only the victor, they are persuaded temporarily to set aside their differences and lay joint siege to the city; this is in turn averted by a convenient dynastic marriage. Within minutes, the French king breaks the alliance when faced with a choice between English or Papal favour. Subsequently, John deems it expedient first to have the young claimant to the throne Arthur murdered, then on realising that his decision will not play well with various camps, reverses it, but too late.

Barrie Rutter's production (now touring) does not fully bring out the pervasive atmosphere of temporising what we are now all too familiar with as "spin". Doran and his John, Guy Henry, do. Henry is a naturally talented comic actor (I last saw him six months ago as a deliciously over-the-top Salvador Dali let loose in Sigmund Freud's study in Terry Johnson's Hysteria), and his King John, whether resolved or vacillating, is humorously brisk and businesslike. It emphasises the satirical side of the character, but may sell short in terms of genuinely held motivation. David Collings's Papal legate Pandulph is a super-subtle manipulator who knows when to let fly with a stream of euphuistic double-talk and when he can afford a private villainous cackle; John Hopkins's square-jawed Dauphin has cast himself as the hero of his own story and is irked when reality fails to comply. Kelly Hunter as young Arthur's mother Constance does terrific justice to the only sustained passage of heartfelt passion in the play.

Jo Stone-Fewings as Philip Faulconbridge, the only sympathetic bastard in all of Shakespeare, plays well as the bluff voice of the common patriotic Englishman and, later, as a serious, concerned commentator upon the more sombre turns of events, but the change seems sharp rather than modulated. Doran's production as a whole works excellently on its own terms, but the niggling doubt remains that there are aspects of the play which are not, and perhaps never can be, all fully brought out in performance.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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