REVIEW: King John at the RSC

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Rosie Sheehy as King John. Photos by Steve Tanner

Feel the funk

King John, The Swan Theatre, until 21st March 2020

Katherine Pearce as the Cardinal

The newly-crowned king is looking rough as rats – slovenly dressed in jim-jams, slugging back a bloody mary to quell a post-coronation hangover.

Thus goes the opening scene of the RSC’s latest funked-up production of King John, directed by Eleanor Rhode with a joyous exuberance. We get the idea: this medieval king is a shady dude prone to partying, and as we see a short while later, wearing sunglasses and dancing vogue-style as if starring in an Andy Warhol video. Which is of course fantastic.

Ethan Phillips as Arthur

Weirdly it seems you can’t mention Shakespeare’s King John without a ‘rarely performed’ tag attached. Its popular (mis)perception is of a fusty historic tale guaranteed to have you a’snoozing by the end of the first act… But here’s what George Orwell said about it in 1942: “When I had read it as a boy it seemed to me archaic, something dug out of a history book and not having anything to do with our own time. Well, when I saw it acted, what with its intrigues and double-crossings, non-aggression pacts, quislings, people changing sides in the middle of a battle, and what-not, it seemed to me extraordinarily up to date.”

David Birrell and Charlotte Randle as King of France and Constance

Indeed on paper the plot actually shows much promise: dodgy monarch has loads of enemies who want to bump him off the throne and replace him with little kid Arthur (his dead older brother’s son); so John makes war with everyone, including Catholic France, sticks two fingers up at the Pope and slyly attempts to do away with his nephew.

Sure, in the wrong hands it has scope to be a turgid affair, but Rhode’s King John has been created with the YouTube generation in mind: it’s colourful, flip and funny, eminently watchable with a cracking pace and never a dull moment – quite literally, as there’s been some snipping.

The aesthetics at work are dazzling. Will Gregory, of electro outfit Goldfrapp, supplies an intensely groovy soundtrack. On design duties Max Johns has crossed musical Hairspray with a touch of regal power dressing to add a swinging 60s feel. And if a scene appears at risk of being in the slightest way drab, then movement guru Tom Jackson Greaves gets to work with some bustin’ choreographed moves.

When the whole shebang is put together the elements combine to create some inspired theatre – in particular the wedding party food fight scene is a gleeful riot.

However, the razzle-dazzle overwhelms at times, and alas can’t save the second half from becoming a bit raggle-taggle. Too often characters burst onstage, garble some lines, then rush off again – plot lost. It’s telling that some of the most memorable bits are not the flash and pomp, but the stiller moments where the acting and story are simply put to the fore.

Notable performances include Charlotte Randle as distraught and desperate mum Constance – brilliant and believable, her ‘Grief fills the room up of my absent child’ monologue plucks the very heart from your chest. Getting much mileage and laughs from the Cardinal role, Katherine Pearce comes over like a particularly fierce Mancunian matriarch popping in from a Victoria Wood sketch – love her.

Lending real heart to the play is 11-year-old Ethan Phillips’ Arthur, by turns querulous, brave and loving, is a profoundly touching performance – especially in the pivotal scene with Hubert, a nuanced performance from Tom McCall.

Rosie Sheehy as the titular king proves she is infinitely worthy of the ambitious casting – she has a fresh, naturalistic style not too dissimilar to the bedroom-based vlogging pop heroes of modern times; and she delivers the verse with a wonderful clarity. Not sure I fully understood where she is coming from at times, but maybe that’s the point – power and youth combine to create an unstable combustion.

Go see the fireworks.