Eleanor Rhode gives RSC’s King John a ’60s twist

Director Eleanor Rhode is thinking “Krays and The Kinks” for her forthcoming production of King John, Shakespeare’s rarely performed history play.

The Swinging ’60s will be a novel twist to this sweeping epic which the Royal Shakespeare Company is reviving in its Swan Theatre, next month, as part of its long-term project of working through every play in writer’s the First Folio.

King John, the 25th Shakespeare production in the canon, packs power struggles among feuding royals, a nation in turmoil, and war with Europe into its busy narrative.

Or, as the theatre’s marketing tagline goes “A mad world of mad kings, teetering on the brink of disaster”.

At one time King John was a favourite with both theatre audiences and the burgeoning cinema market.

Actor and director, Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s, West End crowd-pleaser, over-stuffed with intrigue, spectacle, pomp and ceremony, was the first Shakespearean play to be filmed – as a silent movie – back in 1899.

Yet King John fell out of favour, was labelled a problem play, and is now one of Shakespeare’s least popular works.

Even its director, Eleanor Rhode, a fan of the Bard, hadn’t seen it before being asked to take the helm.

A freelance director, Eleanor is making her RSC debut and she couldn’t be more excited.

Her most recent work included the UK premiere of  the critically acclaimed Blue Door at Theatre Royal Bath and the outstanding world premiere of Tristan Bernay’s Boudica for Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

Eleanor tells Stage Review that rehearsals have thrown up a new side to King John, revealing it to be a sharp, satirical and exciting story which audiences of today will instantly relate to.

The original tale is set in Medieval England of the 13th century. Richard the Lionheart is dead. His weak and vacillating brother, John, is King of England.

Rhode is thinking out of the box for this one with John played by Welsh actress Rosie Sheehy and the international cast of 15 using their native accents.

“I’m really excited by this,” she told me. “It’s a lovely company and the rehearsals are going really well”.

Threatened from all sides by Europe, the Catholic Church, English noblemen and even his own family, King John will stop at nothing to keep hold of his crown.

It’s being set in the groovy and happening 1960s, a time when Britain was emerging from the bleak aftermath of war and austerity to a future full of hope, optimism and opportunity.

“King John is one of those plays whose themes make it continually relevant to the times we live in now, ” says Eleanor.

“We can relate to it. It almost feels like it was written yesterday.

“Our cast come from different parts of Britain and abroad and I wanted them to use their own accents as a reflection of the modern world.

“I grew up with Shakespeare’s work yet I hadn’t read this and knew little about it, so coming to a play I haven’t seen before, is very exciting.

“I wanted Rosie as John because she is an incredible actor and her Welsh accent brings something extra to the dialogue; you really listen to every word she is saying.

“There are massive questions facing us as a nation, right now. We open a month before we leave the EU and there are themes within this play that audiences will recognise.

“The play, which is entirely written in verse – only one of two that Shakespeare wrote in verse – is a challenge but we don’t want to dumb it down and lose any of the language.

“It wasn’t until I got into it that I discovered how very funny and satirical the first half is. It pokes fun at the establishment.

“While the second half is a lot darker. It’s possibly Shakespeare’s most political play and his most personal.

“Working for the first time at the RSC is thrilling. Everyone is so supportive. I’m feeling bold and can now let rip with some great ideas.

“I’m thinking the brilliant, bright 1960s, an era of optimism, The Kinks, the Krays, a sort of Plantagenet Inc. with infighting among the royal firm, dodgy dealings, massive fight scenes, dance numbers…

“I’ve got some great fight directors, who I have worked with before, and Will Gregory from (Synth-pop duo) Goldfrapp is doing the music! How amazing is that?

“It’s going to be fantastic.”

King John runs in the RSC Swan Theatre from September 19 – March 21.

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