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King John review at Rose Theatre, Kingston – ‘antiseptic and uneven’

The cast of King John at Rose Theatre, Kingston. Photo: Marc Douet The cast of King John at Rose Theatre, Kingston. Photo: Marc Douet
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“‘Twas ever thus, and will be”. The Bastard’s cynical conclusion that political decisions are always reached by compromise, self-serving and deceit is Trevor Nunn’s watchword for this revival of Shakespeare’s least known history play, King John.

Returning after last year’s Wars of the Roses (this time with a more diverse cast) Nunn has introduced some of the earlier, anonymous The Troublesome Reign of King John to clarify Shakespeare’s possibly incomplete version. The result successfully makes the point that politics don’t alter much, but there is a distinct change of tone after the interval.

The ironic, even comic mood becomes harsher in the second half. This is exemplified in Lisa Dillon’s Constance, mother of Prince Arthur, the rightful king, whose famous speech “Grief fills up the room of my absent child” is played later than usual when she comes to John in a dream. Until this point – plumbing emotional depths at last – she is almost risibly hysterical.

Jamie Ballard’s diminutive, ratty-haired John, unlovable and scheming as he ought to be, also achieves a hint of pathos. He is nicely counter-weighted by Howard Charles as the more intelligent, four-square Bastard, illegitimate son of Richard I, who commands the stage, addressing the audience directly. Among the rest, Burt Caesar stands out as a notably well-spoken silky cardinal and Sebastian Croft is touching as the trusting, tragic boy, Arthur.

Magna Carta is not mentioned in the play, although last year’s 800th anniversary of its sealing was marked by an exuberant production at the Globe. Here medieval costumes in paint-box colours sit oddly with screens set above the stage to show filming of public events and battles proceeding far away in black and white. The effect is somewhat antiseptic.

Verdict
Clear, amplified production, uneven in tone but engagingly performed 
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