Review of King John at The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.
What, if anything, is King John remembered for? Robin Hood, high taxation, being forced into accepting Magna Carta, and generally being a bit shifty.
Shakespeare has nothing to say about Magna Carta or Robin Hood, and only touches on taxation in passing, but as to John's shiftiness he leaves us in no doubt.
For the most part, though, this rarely-performed early play is about much the same kind of thing as his other kingly histories - fighting pretenders to the throne at home and the French abroad.
Though a rarity, King John was last staged in Stratford only a few years ago and this production directed by Josie Rourke demonstrates that it is well worth dusting off from time to time.
It has a crowd-engaging central character in Philip Faulconbridge, the supposed illegitimate son of Richard the Lionheart (that is, John's nephew), but actually Shakespeare's own invention. Joseph Millson's expansive, high-energy performance ensures that he is by far the play's most vivid character.
Though at first sight a scheming chancer, Faulconbridge ultimately proves a kind of swashbuckling Robin Hood surrogate, who in the closing scene is entrusted with handing the crown to the nine-year-old Henry III and speaking the final, pageant-like line: "Nothing shall make us rue/If England to itself do rest but true."
From a historical point of view, the stirring optimism of this ending is, of course, entirely misplaced.
Richard McCabe, a memorable Hamlet at Birmingham Rep in the 90s, finds a rich vein of dark, bizarre comedy in King John, whose self-pitying vacillations Shakespeare draws out in some remarkable writing.
This is not least the case where he blames the assassin he has charged with the murder of his nephew Arthur for suggesting the idea through his external appearance of villainy. It's like Richard III without the moral backbone.
There is a prolonged nerve-wracking scene in which Arthur eventually talks his would-be assassin out of blinding him with the red-hot poker he is wielding (Ralph Davis was the persuasive young actor at this performance), and several in which Tamsin Greig adds a powerful performance as Arthur's ambitious mother Constance to the fine comic one as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.
Jocelyn Pook has written a lavish quasi-medieval score which makes a strong atmospheric contribution to another absorbing contribution to the RSC's Complete Works marathon. n Running time: Three hours, five minutes. In rep until Oct 10.