Magazine article The Spectator

Childish Tantrums

Magazine article The Spectator

Childish Tantrums

Article excerpt

Theatre 2

King John (The Swan, Stratford)

A Russian in the Woods (The Other Place, Stratford)

Childish tantrums

Patrick Carnegy

With the RSC well launched in London into the completion of its sequence of the eight major histories from Richard 11 to Richard III it isn't surprising that they should dust down King John in Stratford. That unloved play is of course from a much earlier historical epoch. In Shakespeare's output it appears around 1595 as a roguish punctuation mark set down in the very middle of the major sequence.

Its political themes of threats from France and Spain, succession to the throne and the ethics of rebellion are shared with the other plays and were of obvious enough interest in Elizabethan England. Shakespeare's choice of the unremarkable John as their focus is harder to fathom.

Never quite knowing his own mind, inassertive on the rare occasions when he does, John is an unsympathetic figure hard to animate. The more's the pity that Guy Henry turns him into the king of a nursery castle. He gives us a petulant figure who shows surprised delight when people obey him and throws tantrums when they don't. It isn't that these traits aren't there in the character, only that they're in conflict with the fragments of tougher stuff needed to make sense of his barely challenged hold on his kingdom and of the unwavering support of his wily nephew, the Bastard Falconbridge. This has the effect of emasculating Jo Stone-Fewings's Bastard into a complicit nurserymaid, whereas he needs to be something more complex and ambivalent.

Gregory Doran's production exudes an air of desperation. Battle scenes are signalled with a clicked choreography of frenetic standard bearers. There's a danger that at any moment the whole thing may tip over into Rowan Atkinson's Blackadder. There are consolations in David Collings playing the manipulatory Cardinal Pandulph as an episcopal Peter Mandelson and in Kelly Hunter who transmutes Constance's grieving rant into the lament of a veritable Cassandra.

Peter Whelan's new play at The Other Place, A Russian in the Woods, takes place in a villa in Berlin requisitioned by the British army shortly after the airlift and at the height of the Cold War. It is 1950 and 19-year-old Sergeant Pat Harford has been sent out to join the educational corps. Pat is green about the gills and easy prey for his more experienced colleagues. …

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