By IH 20/04 Updated: 20/04 08:45
RSC Swan Theatre
THE FEMALE of the species takes centre stage in this colourful if chaotic girl power re-telling of Shakespeare's rarely performed history play.
With no rousing speeches or great battles, John has always been the rather pale cousin to the likes of Henry V and Richard III, but it does have the Bastard, one of the Bard's truly great characters, who would be a lot better known if it was not for the play he was in. I say he, as director Maria Aberg has decided he would be a she, and not without good reason.
Rather than looking to the 13th century for her inspiration, she turned to Shakespeare's day and focused on when the play was penned. The result is the quick-witted, swift of tongue Bastard, played with vigour and obvious relish by a tomboyish Pippa Nixon, who understandably becomes a parallel for Elizabeth I. The Bastard, straight from Shakespeare's imagination, is at the centre of the action throughout, and even becomes the focus for John's desires as the king finds himself with the hots for the illegitimate daughter of his brother Richard.
The Pope's representative Cardinal Pandulph is also female, played with gangster cool by Paola Dionisotti, who gets to kick the bickering male kings of England and France around.
There are other strong females - played with a straighter bat - most notably the grief-stricken Constance (played with real power by Susie Trayling), mother to the young heir to the English throne Arthur, and John's mother Queen Elinor (Siobhan Redmond).
While the female focus is all very well, it does leave the men rather ignored, and looking a little lost at times, including John, played by the uncannily Michael Sheen look-a-like Alex Waldmann, who just doesn't convince his claim to the crown means much to him one way or another.
It's not his fault, too much of this production is lost in gimmickry, never more so than in the ill-judged bursts of song. Aretha Franklin's I Say A Little Prayer may be a great song, but a full cast rendition has no place here, and if that wasn't indulgence enough then to go straight into a recreation of the famous Dirty Dancing Time of My Life routine, for whatever reason, is completely OTT.
Sadly it doesn't stop there. At times it's like witnessing the result of an explosion in a paint factory. Coloured balloons tumble down the carpeted stairs like a cheap Sony ad, everything from Kinder eggs to water pistols are produced, and some of the outfits are garish in the extreme. It's as if this production is screaming 'we will keep your attention!' - which it does, but sadly not always for the right reason.
King John runs until September 15. For tickets and further details visit www.rsc.org.uk or call the box office on 0844 800 1110.
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