The King John whose stone effigy lies in Worcester Cathedral is handsome enough, but seems peevish, casting a shifty glance over his shoulder, alert to others grasping for the crown and mistrustful of the companions carved on either side.
Shakespeare’s John is so perfectly fitted to this image it’s easy to picture him as tourist, pausing by the Worcester tomb and reaching for his notebook. Superficially charming, summoning up a little regal oration when the occasion demands, this king is none too bright, readily swayed by his formidable mother, and given to sudden fits of temper or hilarity. The play dwells not on the familiar tale of the sulky signing of the Magna Carta, but on power struggles that begin between mother- and daughter-in-law, and end at the gates of a town under siege.
It would be rare indeed to find a theatre-goer crying out in surprised despair as Desdemona is strangled, or shaking their heads in delighted disbelief that Beatrice and Benedick turned out to be rather keen on each other, after all. Even lesser-known plays like Titus Andronicus have a notoriety that forestalls any real surprises: every English undergrad in the world must surely have seen a photo of Lavinia mutely waving her stumps. But King John has been so long abandoned (despite having been wildly popular with the Victorians) that it offers that rare pleasure, at least to those as ignorant as I – a chance to encounter a Shakespeare play with no more knowledge of the plot than those arriving at the Swan in 1598.
In the Union Theatre’s superb production, director Phil Willmott makes of the play’s obscurity a positive virtue. Here is no need to resort to the tricks so often deployed to present the ‘twice-told tales’ of Hamlet or Macbeth in some unusual light: the story, plainly and simply put, is enough. The set is spare and dark, with little more than the odd puff of dry ice and rearrangement of a table to suggest everything from throne room to castle battlements. The cast – sporting battered armour beneath great-coats that might have come from any battlefield from Agincourt to Leningrad – are undaunted by the pentameter: free from the expectations of an audience who have already seen a dozen Johns and know what they like, there is something lively and somehow un-Shakespearian about their performances, with none of the earnest declamations that so often keep an audience at arm’s length from the text.
As John, Nicholas Osmond inhabits the role by degrees. His king clings to power not with the dragon’s wrath claimed by Lear, but with the pettish determination of a child with a favoured toy. Likeable enough at first – a careless man who’d rather do without all this warring nonsense – power corrupts him scene by scene until he becomes capable of acts of chilling cruelty. It is an understated performance that relies not on giving the audience a satisfactory rendition of one of Shakespeare’s ‘Greatest Hits’, but on creating a fully-realised, believably conflicted human being.
As Philip the Bastard, Rikki Lawton’s manic energy is not mere actorly display: it is essential in propelling the cast towards the final scenes. Samantha Lawson is exceptional as Constance, whose ambition matches that of Lady Macbeth, and whose motherly love is so intense as to be troubling. Eleanor of Aquitaine is given due stature and power by Maggie Daniels, and as the lad Arthur, a pawn in a bitter endgame, Albert de Jongh moves between terror and affection with touching conviction.
At the play’s close, I unfolded the paper where I’d recorded the lines which struck me most. I’d thought perhaps the play would be justifiably forgotten – its verse thin and leaden, its plot slow, its characters forgettable. But I discovered I’d scribbled, delighted, on both sides: I found an embarrassment of riches, with more compassion, beauty, wit and grandeur in one scene than most writers over the centuries can summon in a life’s work. Constance’s grief is no less raw than that of Ophelia by the riverside; Albert is no less an innocent than the boys in the Tower; John may revolt us less than Richard III, but for all that seems more real.
It would take a better scholar than I to explain King John’s long fall from grace – but there could be no better production than this to argue for its return.