King John, Swan Stratford, 8 June 2012
The stage was covered with a greyish patterned carpet, reminiscent of a chain hotel, decorated with ugly potted plants. A wide set of steps led up to a back wall consisting of party balloons held behind a net.
Pippa Nixon’s character was an amalgam of Philip the Bastard and Hubert. In the programme she was simply called The Bastard, but given that her own name Pippa is a short form of Philippa, the female form of Philip, this review will refer to her character as Pippa.
The performance began with Pippa in her multi-coloured leggings and blue hoodie trying to play Land of Hope and Glory on a banjo (1.1). She experimented to find the right notes and then got us to join in singing. She commented on how we were doing, pointing out the talent of a group of ladies in the stage left part of the ground floor.
The tune then played out over speakers as King John crowned himself at the top of the carpeted stairs.
Chatillon was an effete Frenchman in a pastel pink suit, who brought news of the French claim to the crown of England. The modern setting meant that the King’s rebuke was deliberately given contemporary resonances with British patriotism and xenophobia.
Siobhan Redmond was glorious as Eleanor and brought her habitual relish to the part.
Robert and Pippa entered so that the King could resolve their inheritance dispute. Robert looked bookish in complete contrast to the bright, relaxed Pippa. She impishly mocked his claim, repeatedly saying there was no reason for it “except to get the land”.
Pippa accompanied l. 98 “Your tale…” with a bawdy gesture. Robert tried to make a similar gesture in return when describing his mother’s indiscretion but could only do so half-heartedly, again emphasising the difference in their characters, Pippa being the lustier.
Eleanor took a liking to Pippa and saw a resemblance in attitude between her and Richard the Lionheart. Pippa decided to forego her inheritance to follow Eleanor who validated Pippa’s warrior woman status by declaring herself “I am a soldier…” In essence, one female warrior invited another to follow her. King John knighted Pippa using a fountain pen.
Pippa’s soliloquy on posh, upmarket society was funny as she mocked the accents and pretensions of those among whom she was now moving.
Lady Faulconbridge’s motorbike could be heard offstage before she entered in her leathers.
Lewis, with leisurewear sunglasses on his head like a playboy, spoke to the boy Arthur borrowing some of the King Philip’s lines to explain the situation regarding the crown in patronising fashion with explanatory noises (2.1). Austria knelt before Arthur who forgave him for killing Richard the Lionheart.
King Philip made a grand entrance loudly proclaiming the preparations for war. Chatillon entered in the same pastel pink outfit with his suitcase to bring news of the impending English invasion.
King John and his party entered above. He showed a great deal of closeness with his mother Eleanor. When she set upon Constance he adlibbed “C’mon Mum”. Pippa was still in her leggings but now wore them with a low-cut top under a black jacket.
King Philip set out the claim that would make Arthur king of England. King John took off his crown, only to replace it again before he patronisingly offered Arthur a Kinder Egg saying “I’ll give thee more than e’er the coward hand of France can win”. This was picked up in Constance’s rebuke to Eleanor’s “grandam” comment saying that he would get in return “a plum, a cherry and a fig”.
In response, Arthur was very realistic in acting fed up at being the centre of so much fuss.
Eleanor produced a piece of paper that demonstrated Arthur could not be heir to the throne and Constance screwed it up.
Mics were brought on stage for the siege of Angiers to enable kings to address its people. Lots of townsmen stood in the galleries and spoke in pairs. King John pointed to the crown to underline his claim. Pippa joined in at l.350 to say “now doth Death line his dead chaps with steel”. She had fun pointing out that the townspeople were standing “As in a theatre, whence they gape and point at your industrious scenes and acts of death.” She suggested that the two kings join together to attack the city.
The town chorus also spoke the words of Hubert (his other lines transferred to Pippa) suggesting the marriage between Lewis and Blanche, who stood on the steps. Lewis was not sure as his reply to “can you love this lady” was “Nay…” which initially sounded negative until followed up with the rest.
Pippa’s aside about “vile lout” Lewis fitted well with her impish female trickster characterisation.
Blanche’s first words were faltering and not understood by the others until clarified. She was bit of a blonde bimbo.
The wedding party lined up for a photo on the step. Pippa stood with a camera as they froze. Underlining her significance as a central character, she was able to freeze time and soliloquise about the “Mad world” that Commodity was able to turn away from a good war.
The wedding then took place. The mics were again used so that King John could sing I Say a Little Prayer in duet with Philip. The two kings chest bumped each other as Lewis and Blanche recreated a scene from the film Dirty Dancing to the sound of Time of My Life. King Philip had a great time and ended up taking his shirt off to reveal his vest.
Silent messengers were rebuked by distraught Constance (2.2). They wore party hats as they had just come from the wedding party to tell her of the arrangement that would disinherit Arthur.
The wedding party crashed down the stairs but stopped before reaching the ground where Constance sat and bewailed her misfortune (3.1). King Philip talked of pawning her his majesty while still in his vest.
The arrival of the female Pandulph (a Mary Portas figure) was announced with “Here comes the holy legate of the pope”. This was repeated so that everyone bowed and moved to the sides to make way for her. She was cast as party pooper. Her comment about the kings being the “anointed deputies of heaven” was sarcastic given their dishevelment, party hats and vests.
King John’s response to her question was standard piece of brash anticlericalism. Pandulph held up her ring to excommunicate King John. King Philip, realising he was being asked to start a war with a relative by marriage, pleaded for peace.
The cool and aloof Pandulph’s description of the church’s curse as “a mother’s curse” was significant, as it was delivered by a female character.
In general, this production’s use of female characters for male ones enabled it to revel in these ambiguities.
In contrast to her initial faltering speech, Blanche was very eloquent in her dilemma. She faced choosing between the two factions lined up either side of the stage, saying “Which is the side that I must go withal?”
Pippa entered down the steps with a Sainsbury’s bag from which she retrieved Austria’s severed head (3.2). Eleanor was with the captured Arthur. Hubert’s lines were given to Pippa. This meant that King John’s declaration of devoted friendship (with its mention of love) began to look like sexual attraction. He gave her a necklace as a love token. Having a woman on the receiving end of these very words gave them a different significance, in effect a sideways comment on the original text’s male intimacy. King John instructed Pippa to kill Arthur.
Constance’s grief at the loss of Arthur was excellent and passionate (3.3). But if this production was all about Pippa, then was Constance’s grief sidelined and made less significant?
Constance pulled down her hair as indicated in the text’s implied stage directions and was told by King Philip to put it up again. Her description of Arthur as “my food, my all the world” was incredibly moving.
Pandulph gave Lewis a lesson in political tactics, saying that King John would kill Arthur and thereby pave way for his own claim to the throne.
Pippa got ready with the executioner to put out Arthur’s eyes (4.1). Her line “His words do take possession of my bosom” originally spoken by Hubert, was very significant. Spoken by a female character, whose bosom was very much in evidence in her low-cut top, constantly reinforcing her femininity, these lines made her seem very female in her maternal compassion for a troubled child.
The prospect of the boy being injured was very shocking. The executioner was called and Arthur offered no resistance when being placed on the block. But the iron had gone cold.
This sequence came just after Constance’s powerful speech about her maternal care for Arthur and so could not help but be influenced by it. Pippa relented and this act of mercy looked right and in character. At this point the interval came.
The second half (4.2) began with Pippa singing “Civilian” by Wye Oak. King John recrowned himself at the top of the steps, at which point confetti snowed down from the flies, poppers popped and the dozens of latex balloons broke free and cascaded down the steps onto the stage. A neon sign “for god and england” lit up at the back.
King John put the crown on twice, either to make a point about the definitiveness of the gesture, or to signify that he was donning it for the second time.
The nobles demanded Arthur’s freedom. Pippa entered and whispered to John the lie that she had killed him. Pembroke’s line very cutting “Indeed we heard how near his death he was before the child himself felt he was sick”. King John heard of the deaths of Eleanor and Constance.
The sequence involving Peter the Prophet was cut, but Pippa did talk (as Hubert) about the “five moons” that had been seen by people foretelling bad things because of the death of Arthur.
King John argued with Pippa claiming that the murder was her idea and essentially blaming her for the problems he was experiencing. He groped and climbed on top of her asserting his dominance and also his anger. This demonstrated that their relationship was sexualised, and his “you made me do it” stance looked like classic misogyny. He claimed: “Hadst not thou been by… this murder had not come into my mind”.
Pippa was relieved to be able to tell King John that Arthur was in fact alive. She described her hand as “yet a maiden and an innocent hand”. This was another expression of male weakness conveyed in female terms that became ironic when spoken by a woman.
Arthur walked the wall of the castle, represented by the top of the steps and gradually made his way down to the bottom of the steps stage left (4.3). Another Arthur appeared at the stage right top of the steps and turned his back to the audience. When that Arthur jumped and fell down the back of the steps, the Arthur at the front collapsed a short distance onto the stage where he lay until discovered by the nobles.
Pippa entered on Hubert’s cue speaking his lines, drawing a gun in response to being threatened with a knife, saying ironically “I think my sword’s as sharp as yours”. But then she lamented Arthur’s death using Philip’s lines, such as “It is a damned and a bloody work”.
Obviously the argument between Philip and Hubert was cut. In the text, Philip comments on how easily Hubert picked Arthur up. Pippa was given a modified version of this so that she could comment on how easily she could carry him, saying “How easy do I take all England up”, continuing that speech to the end of the scene.
King John faced upstage and kneeled before Pandulph (5.1). He held his hands together in prayer with the crown slotted over the top of them. He offered it to Pandulph who took the crown and placed it on the king’s head to mark his return to the fold of the faithful.
Pippa entered with news about the Dauphin’s advances and how the nobles had turned against him when they discovered Arthur dead. King John was able to complain to Pippa directly that she had assured him Arthur was alive, rather than complain to Philip about the assurances of the absent Hubert.
When Pippa began to bolster the king saying “But wherefore do you droop?”, Why look you sad?” exhorting him to “glister like the god of war”, she resembled Lady Macbeth encouraging her husband. If she had said “Infirm of purpose” the line would have fitted exactly.
This underscored again how easily male-to-male dialogue could be recast as the words of wife to husband.
Lewis and Salisbury were getting ready for battle, with Salisbury saying how difficult he found it to take arms against his own people (5.2). Blanche was still milling around in her wedding dress under a jacket.
Pandulph appeared on the stage left walkway to declare peace. She demanded that the war preparations be wound up by symbolically wafted them away with a sweep of her wrist. Lewis was still keen on war with England.
Pippa entered at the top of the steps and delivered a big, boastful speech from there about the power and might of King John. Lewis said that she could “outscold us”: the use of a term related to scolding, usually applied to women, was telling when applied to Pippa.
The final scene in the production (5.3-5.6) saw King John looking ill. Messengers appeared in the galleries swapping news. It began with Pippa using one of Hubert’s lines and pointing her gun from the gallery saying: “Who’s there? Speak, ho! Speak quickly, or I shoot” then continuing as Philip saying “Show me the very wound of this ill news: I am no woman, I’ll not swoon at it.” Having Pippa state that she was not a woman produced yet another flash of recognition that the production was again playing with its gender categories.
Others around the galleries responded using Hubert’s words to bring the news of King John’s poisoning. We saw the injured Melun in one of the galleries near the stage.
Down on the stage King John crumpled and started dancing to “Beggin’” by Frankie Valli with its line “Just can’t make it all alone”. The neon sign now had letters missing from it, another indication of decay.
Constance and Arthur entered, mocked King John and then exited after which the king howled in pain. His son Prince Henry asked “How fare’s your majesty?” His reply paused after its first word “Poisoned…” the bareness of which elicited a laugh from the audience.
He was supported by the Prince, but it was Pippa who became his chief comforter. She howled and sat hugging him as he died. Her “Art thou gone so?” merged into her final speech “O, let us pay… rest but true!”
The sense that we were watching the end of a love affair undercut the blood and guts patriotism of the play’s final sentiment about England fearing nothing if it remained true to itself, whatever that is supposed to mean.
Taking the characters of Philip and Hubert and merging them into a new female character had the effect of recasting the play as a love story with some scenes echoing the dialogue between the Macbeths. This was quite a neat solution to the problem of finding a new angle on quite a dry, early Shakespeare history play.
Pippa was the first character to appear, she was the only one who had the ability to stop time and address us in soliloquy. It was her passion over the dead king that closed the play.
But this came at a price. If Pippa was the new centre of the play then that tended to downgrade the significance of the other characters particularly Constance.
The love story was entertaining and the way the production joked with its own gender references was amusing. But this undermined any commentary the play might have contained on the contemporary relevance of its portrayal of England’s relationship with the rest of the world, which seemed to be one of its ambitions given the modern dress staging.