Year of Shakespeare: King John at the RSC

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


King John, Royal Shakespeare Company, dir. by Maria Aberg, 14 May 2012 at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

By Will Sharpe

The stage is set. The stage is carpeted. The carpet is ugly. The plants are potted. The balloons are netted (the balloons are later released). The chandelier is art-deco (still not sure why). The lights are bright. The costumes are catwalk rococo. The King’s a raffish stud. The Bastard’s a woman. The Bastard’s also Hubert. The predictions were dire. The opinions were split. The people were leaving in disgust.

If so, then the people were wrong. On the evidence of the audience size on the night I saw it – admittedly a Monday – there may be some truth to the walkout rumours. Although the full cohort seemed still to be in attendance post-interval, we were a scattered bunch from the outset, but the response seemed overwhelmingly – and rightly – positive. King John is Shakespeare’s political sleaze play, and 2012’s Cultural Olympiad (and all the baggage that entails, which this Year of Shakespeare project as a whole seeks to interrogate) is predominantly about emphasising the Shakespearean now. Pictures of David Cameron and Barack Obama, along with a now slightly dated image of a group of protesters literally figuring Bush as a corporate puppet dallied by sponsors in the programme seemed to confirm alliance to this trend. Yet Maria Aberg’s production pulled away from such brisk topicalities, drawing its overriding energy from a very canny grasp of the play’s experimental oddities as a disturbing fantasy of legitimacy and the abuses of power, rather than a lucid depiction of recognisable events.

Pippa Nixon’s Bastard/Hubert composite started by trying to rouse us with a sing-along ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ on a ukulele. Just in case we needed our elbows jogged, a neon sign rearstage reading ‘For God and England’ was revealed post-interval while PJ Harvey’s ‘Let England Shake’ played the curtain call out. Edmund Kingsley’s pink-suited Chatillon –  the French all pastel shades and composed swaggers straight out of a Stella Artois advert – was then received by John’s retinue in this Marriott style conference room, bespeaking the cheap, 3-star grabs at decadence that are the hallmark of the grubbing, aspirant, middle-class local politician, all off-the-rack cocktail dresses, dowdy suits and champagne flutes. Alex Waldmann’s John was a notable exception at the centre, dressed in a variety of outfits throughout the night, all of which made him look roughly, in review shorthand, like a member of Kings of Leon (skinny jeans, wifebeater, boots, spangly suit jackets). This was no weedy mummy’s boy, but a smouldering, hedonistic seducer; one unusual clinch between him and Siobhan Redmond’s Eleanor seemed to suggest in fact that even his mother wanted his hands not so much on her apron strings as at the zip of her dress.

The hotel aesthetic was consistent with a powerful technique throughout of bringing remote and unfamiliar settings and experiences into recognisable contexts. It seemed less like international power-brokering than it did a family wedding gone horribly wrong. The wedding theme came to the surface with Louis (Oscar Pearce) and Blanche’s (Natalie Klamar) nuptials played out as a garish party, Alex Waldmann’s John taking to the same mic he had used to address the citizens of Angiers to serenade the newlyweds with ‘Say A Little Prayer’. This evolved into a full–cast chorus and shifted into Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes’s ‘(I Had) The Time of My Life’, complete with dirty dance number. Its gift to the play was in showing, in this fleshing out of what are textually offstage revels, that no matter how influential people become, they still just want to drink, dance and degenerate, ideally at the right parties, when they get there.

After parties, of course, come mornings after, and one of the triumphs of the production was in its gradual accretion of signs of past merriment (paper hats, party poppers, champagne bottles, confetti), trodden into the carpets and littering the emptying rooms John finds himself in as the world comes down around him leading up to and following Arthur’s death. The moving scene between Arthur and Susie Trayling’s Constance, as Salisbury (David Fielder) tried to summon them back to the throng, showed this world of childish adult hedonism was no place for an actual child to be. Neither did this seem a world in which religion had any genuine purchase, and Paola Dionisotti’s Pandulph, looking like a slightly superannuated Anna Wintour, fostered the visual impression that excommunication from Rome seemed to imply no invites to fashion week, a far more painful exclusion to the numb of soul.

The aforementioned balloons were released, along with a veritable explosion of tickertape, which strewed the theatre, at the second-coronation scene post-interval. As we know, crowns in Shakespeare tend to make islands of men, and fragile, mortal men of kings, and this torrent of confetti covering an empty room served potently to show that the gloss had really come off Waldmann’s party pizazz by now. The second half was inaugurated by another musical number from the Bastard, Nixon this time singing Baltimore hipster folk-rock duo Wye Oak’s song, ‘Civilian’, which – perhaps inconsequently, perhaps interestingly – contains the lyrics:

I am nothing without a man
I know my faults
But I can hide them

Though perhaps those about keeping baby teeth in the bedside drawer reiterated the play’s sadnesses surrounding children (either infanticide or the yearning to go back – ‘mother dead’?) Either way, it was striking how much recorded music (songs recognisable in their original form rather than played live) was used in this production, showing a David Chase-esque (Sopranos creator) discernment in playlists as well as his attentiveness to their potential for use as Greek chorus. ‘Within me is a hell’, grimaces John as the poison takes hold, a hell shown brilliantly –again made familiar through an everyday, of-the-body strategy – by Waldmann dancing wildly to Frankie Valli’s ‘Beggin” before collapsing in a heap as the small cluster of scenes preceding it play out as a mad cacophony from the galleries. Cradled in the Bastard’s arms, in a setting familiar to many a Sunday morning cleaner, ‘this England’ contained little to entice the proud foot of a conqueror. A bold and brilliant production tempered by an intelligent critical distance from Aberg both in theorising the play and in applying performance methods to tell the story she sees.

What do you think of this interpretation of Shakespeare? Please add your thoughts to the discussion thread below!


To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

Audience responses:


Want to hear what other audience members thought of the production on the night? Click below to find out:

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Author:Will Sharpe

Will Sharpe is one of the General Editors of the forthcoming RSC/Palgrave Collaborative Plays by Shakespeare and Others, as well as a Chief Associate Editor of the RSC Shakespeare individual volumes series, for which he co-edited Cymbeline with Jonathan Bate. He is one of the General Editors of Digital Renaissance Editions, and has taught at the University of Warwick, Nottingham Trent University and The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, where he is Visiting Lecturer.
  • Charles Morton

    I saw this production last Friday and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun but without losing sight of the emotional heart of the play. A few of the choices, such as the balloons and conflation of the Bastard and Hubert, I don’t think helped. I didn’t know the play well enough to see the point that was being made with the conflation and the balloons proved more of a distraction for actors and audience after their initial (impressive) effect. The final scene was the one moment I thought did not quite work, but it was a more modern, and in many ways satisfying, conclusion than in the text (like ending Hamlet with Hamlet’s death rather than Fortinbras). Having said that, I thought it was a very enjoyable production, the best Shakespeare I’ve seen at the RSC since moving here a year ago. The central performances of King John and the Bastard were very strong, with Waldmann capturing the petulance of King John. The final dance, the kind of dance of death to ‘Begging You’ was, as Erin says, surprisingly powerful. Blanche was similarly effecting in her speech about losing either way the battle goes. I have seen productions before where the concept has undermined moments like that, but this one did not at all. Th

    Of course, it didn’t touch on all possible theoretical interpretations of the script, but it had a strong concept that it struck to and worked well, creating a very enjoyable evening of theatre out of one of Shakespeare’s often overlooked early plays.

  • Merry Nye

    Oops. Meant to say probably liked the “modern” adaptation more.

  • Merry Nye

    I won’t pretend to know much about Shakespeare or his work, but I very much enjoyed the production and Will Sharpe’s comments about it. While I had been looking forward to heavy brocade costuming and all the drama that goes with it, I probably liked the “modern” and amusing (were they supposed to be?) adaptations. Very, very glad I saw it.

  • Anjna Chouhan

    This is certainly a visually striking production, from
    the pub-cheap carpet to the distractingly garish leggings worn by the Bastard.
    Aberg’s King John is ugly and
    disorienting; but it is consciously so. The audience is transported to a despairingly
    un-nationalistic world ruled by juvenile monarchs, drink, parties and popular
    culture, barely checked by the well-moneyed, rather than pious, Church of Rome.
    Though the presence of Nixon’s Bastard does indeed displace much of the play’s familiarity,
    it goes some way towards humanising the character. But far from ‘feminising’ the
    play, the detached Pandulph and hyperactive Bastard draw attention to the
    diversity of female experience (not all women are ambitious, lamenting mothers)
    and, at the very least, highlight the centrality of these characters to the
    moral and political health of both England and France. By the end of the play,
    the audience is left with no feeling of English pride – in spite of the
    ostensibly nationalist neon sign – and a guilty discomfort at the sight of the
    debris from the short-lived time of prosperity.

  • Erin Sullivan

    I loved this production. Alex Waldmann’s final dance was one of the most powerful things I’ve seen in the theatre – so surprising and for me so effective in conveying the intense emotional despair and physical pain involved in his death (‘Within me is a hell’). Overall I thought the production was more interested in developing the play’s characters and relationships than its politics and philosophical viewpoint, though I would argue that both were definitely still present. I wonder if this is part of the reason it has so divided opinion? I hope the RSC does more theatre like this, and I hope to see Maria Aberg back soon.

  • Davidhumble

    It was a shambolic load of old rubbish showing no trust in the play and little regard for author or audience. Furthermore the performances, including those from actors for whom I have great regard such as Richmond and Dionisetti, were extremely disappointing. The relationship between John and the Bastard was of course completely destroyed by the inane casting whilst Hubert was not only missed on his own account but the handing of his role to the Bastard destroyed the balance of that part. While we are at it I had no idea what the Bastard’s attitude was to the dubious political shenanigans leading to her “commodity” speech and I suspect Pippa Nixon was equally in the dark. The difference may be that I worried about that. This is the fifth production of this supposedly little staged play I have seen and it is also the only one to leave me less than enthralled. I cannot however finish without  mentioning Trayling as Constance. She fought hard to save the play and is the only person to emerge from the wreck with any credit whatsoever. 

  • Christian Smith

    The RSC is lost. They no longer trust in the poetry and have little understandsing of the depths of Shakespeare’s plays, which is why they think that stag and hen party pop entertainment (both King John and the recent Merchant of Venice) is the way to interpret them. King John is a profound play that interrogates the origins of capitalism deep in the Middle Ages. It does to capitalism what Adorno and Horkheimer did to the Enlightenment – finds its roots. Aberg and O’Hare completely misunderstand the play and blow a really good chance to use KJ to interrogate contemporary capitalism. The love affair between KJ and the Bastard made absolutely no sense at all. The Bastard as a woman also made no sense.

  • Anonymous

    What a bizarre take on the play – and yet how wonderful to see directors taking chances with the histories and escaping either original context or a modern warfare setting. Let’s hope the audience numbers improve as word of mouth spreads.

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