In what is also the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Trevor Nunn offers a surprisingly modern take on King John at the Rose Theatre Kingston. Nunn’s modern recrafting of the narrative works, however, the modern staging falls flat, thanks in part to large flat screens.
This story of politics, power and plots takes place against a large battlement, designed by John Napier and Mark Friend. It’s an immense and intricate backdrop, but is under utilised for the most part. One thing which Nunn makes full use of, though, is source material, melding Shakespeare’s text with The Troublesome Reign of King John. What results is an invigorated narrative, bringing new readings to light. Nunn also brings an unexpected levity to proceedings, though the continual playing of lines for laugh does drag a bit. Culminating in rather uncomfortable laughter in the final scene of Nunn’s version, which essentially condemns King John to an eternal hell.
One theme which is expertly drawn out by Nunn is the power of words versus actions, with the former seemingly the victor. It is not through war that Angiers opens its doors, but words of love. It is with words that Arthur conquers Hubert’s heart and we see Philip’s tongue prove sharper than the sword, forcing lords to sheath their weapons. Nunn’s staging reinforces the importance of this theme, the power of telling not showing, with no fights taking place on stage.
Fights are still shown to the audience in a way. Two screens play various footage throughout: montages, some rather outdated looking fights and live footage. It’s a frankly bizarre addition and one which for me is jarring. At points it signifies scenes in which the different factions appeal to us, the audience, the people, reminiscent of the leadership debates. But later, this pre-established point of view shifts as the camera shows the private coronation of Henry, something we the people wouldn’t see. Arguably, its worst use is in the death of Henry which is laughable, probably the only bit of the play which Nunn didn’t intended to be so. There are countless ways to have done that scene without a frankly comical clip of a body falling in slow motion. All it was missing was a Wilhelm scream. This use of storytelling somehow feels both modern and outdated.
Ballard revels in the ‘Mum’s boy’ role, playing for laughs and obviously relishing every minute. You get a real sense of John as being put into this position too soon, not mature enough despite his years: petulant and full of pomp, he storms across the stage. Ballard ensures John does not carry himself as a king, with his physicality suggesting he is not ready for this, adjusting the robe and fiddling with the crown. Other stand out performances include Joe Bannister’s Dauphin, charming both the people’s hearts and our own before a sudden betrayal. Stephen Kennedy steals the show as Hubert, a part which could easily fade into the background amongst lords and other citizens. Kennedy bringing such emotional truth and weight to every word and utterance, particularly on discovering Henry’s body. Howard Charles makes for a bold and brash Bastard Philip, though at points should just let the words speak for themselves. The same can be said for Lisa Dillon’s Constance, who’s outbreak in the marriage scene would feel more palpable, more threatening were she to let the words show her rage, not peevishly throwing everything to the ground.
Verdict: a modern recrafting of King John, breathing new life into the play. Falling short on modern staging, perhaps Nunn should have heeded a theme from the play: tell, don’t show.
King John is playing until Sunday 5th June at the Rose Theatre Kingston. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Rose Theatre Kingston website.