King John ~ RSC

I’ve always booked tickets for the theatre on the basis that some you win and some you lose and you’re just going to have to hope that over a lifetime of theatre-going the winners outnumber the losers.  This is particularly the case where booking tickets for the RSC at Stratford is concerned because in order to get seats at all it is usually necessary to commit before any reviews come out.  Nevertheless, so far I reckon I’m on the winning side.

The 2012 Stratford season is still in its early stages and up to this weekend I’d only seen a couple of performances by visiting companies – the score being one each way.  However, the omens were not particularly good for a two – one on the winning side on Saturday given that I was going to see King John and that the reviews have been luke warm to say the least.  The production is in modern dress (not something I have a problem with), has cast both the Bastard and the Papal Legate as women and has changed the text so that it is now the Bastard who is asked to kill John’s eleven year old nephew, Arthur rather than the soldier, Hubert.  Furthermore, if you don’t know the words to Land of Hope and Glory you will have difficulty joining in with the singalong at the very beginning.  (I understand that this has been a real issue with performances largely populated with school children.  Perhaps they should invest in a karaoke machine.)  I really wasn’t expecting very much.

Well, it just goes to show that I should know better than to prejudge, because I loved almost every minute of it and what is more important I still came away with a pretty good idea of what Shakespeare was trying to say about both the ruthlessness and the fickleness of those in power.  In addition, because of its modern setting, the production  casts some fairly damning spotlights onto the behaviour of current important figures, whether they be monarchs, politicians, churchmen or business magnates.  The bottom line is always that you pattern your behaviour according to whatever is going to best further your interests.  Concepts such as truth, loyalty and patriotism have nothing to do with it and if you happen to stumble across someone who holds to such values then you exploit their ‘weakness’ for all it’s worth.  This is the strength of having John order the Bastard to kill Arthur.  I don’t think the fact that the character is here female has anything to do with it, the point is that this is now someone whose loyalty and patriotism we, as an audience, have come to believe in and so we understand much more clearly than we would with the less sympathetic Hubert what exactly is being asked.  The Bastard’s dilemma is clear.  Can she justify the most appalling deed imaginable in the light of her loyalty to King and Country?  Can she kill an innocent child?  I wish I could say that there is no way this particular element of the play could be translated into a modern equivalent.  The truth is that after the news coming out of Syria this weekend it is all too apparent that some people are daily being put in exactly that position.

So, I sat back and enjoyed the parties, the singing, the dancing and the balloons because in most respects this production was true to Shakespeare and also to what I believe to be the theatre’s primary role, namely to force the audience to take a good hard look at its own society and ask the difficult questions.  Add to this the fact that the verse speaking was excellent and on balance I think this was a winner.

I have two ‘grumbles’.  While, in a modern context at least, I could believe in a female bastard. I couldn’t believe in a female Papal Legate.  I’m not Catholic, so I don’t know, there may indeed be such people, but here the character didn’t have the necessary force.  And then there were the productions final words.

This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.
Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them: nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true. (5.7.112)

I’m not sure, I would need to see the production again, but I think this was cut.  I think what we had was

This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.
…………… nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true. (5.7.112)

Include those missing two and a half lines and you have a rousing exit.  Omit them and both the sentiment and the fractured verse makes the ending peculiarly downbeat.  It might have fitted with the overall pattern of thought, but it let the play down in its final moments.

Despite those caveats , I would still recommend this to anyone who happens to be close enough to Stratford to see it.  Go with an open mind, throw yourself into the spirit and remember that Shakespeare himself, rarely missed a chance to be innovative.

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4 thoughts on “King John ~ RSC

  1. I share your attitude about the theatre. I’m a season ticket-holder at one of my local theatres and volunteer as a usher at two others, so I’m committed to all the shows before the reviews come out (and sometimes even before I know what the shows will be)! But so far, taking risks and seeing things I might not have chosen on my own has worked in my favor. The number of pleasures far outweighs the number of complete duds.

  2. I get so annoyed with people who complain because the play wasn’t what they thought it ought to be. You get a lot of that at Stratford because some people only want their view of Shakespeare, which the are always convinced is the only way to do it. In fact, I think I feel another post about a very specific instance coming on.

  3. We have a Stratford Festival here in Ontario that puts on a number of Shakespeare plays every year. I don’t go very often as I live some hours away, but the last time I went I saw a wonderful 60s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m all for innovation, especially when it comes to Shakespeare.

    1. The Dream really lends itself to creative thinking. We had a marvellous 1960s version from the RSC last season, with Theseus as a mafia boss. It shouldn’t have worked, but it was superb and one of the funniest I have ever seen.

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