The party’s over. Balloons festoon the stage, empty champagne bottles are strewn about the stage - and death comes creeping for the king.
Nicholas Mullan (Arthur), Alex Waldmann (King John) and Pippa Nixon (The Bastard) in King John at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon (previous picture shows Susie Trayling as Constance) Photo: Tristram Kenton
Part of the RSC’s Nations at War season, Maria Aberg’s modern dress production of Shakespeare’s study of power and those who wield it is full of energy and invention. It’s a lively, colourful staging in which the king sings karaoke and the dauphin dances like Patrick Swayze.
Particularly notable is the re-casting of the Bastard - the illegitimate offspring of Richard the Lionheart and the king’s inadvertent ally - as a woman. This changes the connection between her character and Alex Waldmann’s playboy king. Theirs is already an intriguing relationship but there’s now a sexual undercurrent to the bond between them which becomes more overt as the production progresses.
As the Bastard, Pippa Nixon initially plays the fool, leading the audience in song on her ukulele, but she gradually becomes the moral centre of the play. Aberg’s production tweaks the gender dynamics further by casting Paola Dionisotti as the Pope’s Legate - she’s an imposing Anna Wintour figure who soon has John and his French counterpart at her feet - and Susie Trayling’s raw, grief-ravaged performance as Constance adds yet another layer, another female perspective on events. Waldmann, in the title role, gets a little overshadowed at times, but he has sufficient charisma to hold his own.
Designer Naomi Dawson has covered the Swan’s stage with anonymous airport carpeting and the whole set has a Eurovision sheen - a wall of balloons looms almost ominously in the background, ready to burst forth at any moment.