Amid a year of Hamlets, Dreams and star crossed lovers it is refreshing that Trevor Nunn chose to return to Shakespeare’s work with the seldom seen King John.
The Rose Theatre, Kingston, modelled on the original Rose, Bankside, where the playwright’s history plays were first performed, seems a fitting venue for a production which lays the groundwork for the entire Hollow Crown series.
But it isn’t without its detractors. It’s considered a problem play, possibly borrowing scenes from another drama, even another author. There’s no protagonist to win audience support, it’s told in rhyme and features few stand out lines, it shows England’s leadership as weak and fallible and doesn’t mention John’s, and England’s, greatest triumph, the Magna Carta.
However, Nunn doesn’t really have much option but to go with this story of political back-stabbing, treachery and religious intolerance.
The theatrical knight only has King John and A Midsummer Night’s Dream left to fulfil his ambitions of directing the entire Shakespeare canon and, rather sentimentally, the latter is pencilled in for his home town of Ipswich this summer.
Purists will enjoy King John. Sir Trevor hasn’t put the cast in modern dress or gender swapped. He hasn’t tinkered about with it at all, which is its weakness. This is a traditional, unfussy, interpretation, performed by a cast who take their job very seriously.
The production feels right at home in John Napier’s classically designed wooden tiered staging and bare, stripped-back stage. Any colour comes from Mark Friend’s richly designed costumes, with its noblemen and women attired in a rainbow of jewelled colours.
Only the story’s roguish villain, Howard Charles’ bastard Philip Faulconbridge, who is later daubed Richard Plantagenet (and revealed as illegitimate son of Richard I), wears the mantle of the common, unrefined man which also serves to mark the character out from the horde.
John is history’s weakest link. He gets the throne by default when his father overlooks his oldest son and hands the crown to his youngest.
“Who me?” mouths Jamie Ballard as John. Never meant for kingship he’s slightly taken aback, totally unprepared and unschooled for reign or diplomacy, unable to handle the subsequent rebellion by his knights, the French, and the church.
Ballard’s nicely judged performance gives us a king who is petulant, impulsive, indecisive and easily swayed, firstly by his mother, and later, the forceful, ambitious, manipulative, Richard.
Howard Charles glowers and snarls as the quick-tempered Richard whose asides to the audience reveal his lust for power.
But the remaining ensemble of earls, lords and royalty have little to do other than to fill the stage with gravitas etched into their faces.
Maggie Steed gives a good turn as John’s mother, Queen Elinor, who finds herself straddling the political divide, related to both royal families of France and England.
This is a King John which is solid, old-school, reliable and well-acted (although Burt Caesar’s performance as the papal legate, Cardinal Pandulph is a trifle over-ripe) but not exceptional.
Running at the Rose Theatre, Kingston until June 5.
King John, Trevor Nunn’s penultimate Shakespeare, at Rose Theatre, is well acted but quaintly old school in its direction.