Sunday, April 08, 2012

"Mad world! Mad Kings! Mad composition!" - rethinking power and gender in King John: RSC, Swan Theatre, Saturday 7 April 2012 preview

King John used to be a real crowd-pleaser (back in the 19th century), but has had long periods of having fallen out of favour.  It's hard to see why, since this history play is eminently adaptable to commentary on power, authority, and - in this version especially - gender.  With several strong women characters already in the play, the balance of this production tips even further to the female, with The Bastard being played with the sinewy strength by Pippa Nixon and the Legate Pandulph portrayed by a magisterial and elegant Paola Dionisotti.  
Alex Waldman makes the title role that of a headstrong but ultimately chaos-wreaking young man, out of his depth amidst such strong women.  He fails to compromise, then compromises, and is eventually bought down by poison: a real 'inside I'm dancing' thrash to the death, putting on the show to convince himself more than anyone else.  He's mortified at the pathetic nature of his departure from life. I think Waldman could go far as he's pretty mesmerizing to watch even as this flawed and malleable King.  Resembling James McAvoy won't do the guy any harm either... 
There are some nice flashes of humour and incongruity throughout the production - many allow Nixon space to soliloquize to a rapt audience.  She stops the show, the party, the politics, to comment on the mad family who have allowed her 'Couer-de-Lion' features a role in shoring up these 'Nations at War' (to use the RSC's over-arching thread which includes this play and Richard III*).  Nixon plays The Bastard as one with amused detachment and simultaneously fierce confidence: s/he open the play with a solo ukulele version of 'Land of Hope and Glory', before the music launches fully into Pomp and Circumstance mode and the coronation of John garners exultant (if sychophantic) cheers in front of an irked Chatillion (the fine if under-used Edmund Kingsley**).
There is also a hilarious sequence - if in terms of the play utterly superfluous - where the party to celebrate the (doomed) marriage of Blanche and Lewis, the Dauphin, becomes a recreation of the Dirty Dancing finale complete with a finger-clicking advance and a leap/lift.  It's incongruous, but also rather charming - families willing this compromise to work, but realising all too late that it cannot when the authority of the Church turns up in the form of an imperious Legate to bring wayward John and England's faith back into line.  The party comes to an abrupt end, and Blanche is left once more the pawn of the power-plays where her body and mind are merely exchangeable commodities on an alter of authoritarianism.
The play makes good use of the mother figures, who elsewhere are all too easily given to histrionics in productions of King John: here Constance (mother of the doomed Arthur) is suitably grief-stricken but the distress is contained whilst being no less powerful for that.  Additionally, the ever-luminous Siobhan Redmond*** makes for a righteous power behind-the-throne Queen Elinor.  Her off-stage death brings to an swift end her efforts to manage the wayward, hotheaded John.  Her political accommodations befit her own strengths as a royal force to be acknowledged.
For me, there is just one slightly wrong note in this production: the conflation of The Bastard with Hubert, who is 'instructed' by John to kill the young Arthur and fails.  Sadly, for me it does not seem to quite work.  Is it being female that weakens the act of putting out the eyes of the young prince?  It undermines the otherwise smart but not so simplistic gender-switch of The Bastard.  
But this is a minor complaint in a very savvy production, worth seeing and which I am sure will iron out any rough edges from this preview version (it was only the second performance).
In the meantime, we'll be back next month when I'm looking forward to seeing the delightful Jonjo O'Neill again playing Richard III.  Should be fun.

* The trilogy of 'Nations of War' concludes with 'A Soldier in Every Son - The Rise of the Aztecs'
** Yup, Sir B's progeny
*** Yes, that was how I sold Neil the play.  Plus, ya know, politics and history.  He likes them.


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