A rare chance to see one of Shakespeare’s most underrated history plays, with one of his greatest female roles - the wronged and tragically bereaved Constance - proves an unexpected treat at the cramped, darkly atmospheric Union Theatre.
Rikki Lawton (Philip the Bastard) and Nicholas Osmond (King John) in King John at the Union Theatre, London Photo: Scott Rylander
The redoubtable Phil Willmott follows in the RSC footsteps of John Barton, Deborah Warner and Josie Rourke in unravelling the dynastic squabbles, power grabs and religious rows in England and France following the death of Richard the Lionheart.
It’s simply and swiftly done in a design by Emma Tompkins of tables (as tombs, ramparts and turrets), banners and greatcoats. Nicholas Osmond finds lightness and humour in the succeeding John, Richard’s brother, while Damian Quinn faces up boldly as Philip of France.
Samantha Lawson threads Constance’s great speeches through a golden hairpiece, increasingly distraught (“Grief fills up the room of my absent child”), while Albert de Jongh plays that child older than usual, but no less effectively, in his scenes with Hubert (John Last), the guilt-stricken hired assassin with burning irons.
The play, which always sounds less like Shakespeare than some others - except when the Bastard Faulconbridge, played by Rikki Lawton, lets rip - is thoroughly engaging as a vivid anatomy of power and politics in not-so distant times.