King John

Performed by a company of young actors, this is a credible adaptation of Shakespeare’s rarely performed King John that revels in the high stakes of its historical narrative. Its live music (atmospherically played by Jemma Fendley and Tom Vallance) and energetic battle scenes provide some entertaining theatre.

Alex Thomas directs with some visual flair, particularly during the confrontations between France and England

King John, ranking among England’s least popular monarchs, has to contend with a challenge to his throne from his nephew Arthur and the King of France, along with threats of excommunication from a Pope irate about the imprisonment of his chosen archbishop. John is a difficult character to get hold of, alternating between villainy and incompetence, sometimes hopelessly at the mercy of events. Ben Rymer, whilst giving a credible enough performance, struggled to capture the king’s complexities, and isn’t helped by some occasionally clumsy blocking.

The action was instead brought to life by some colourful supporting characters. Benedict Mulcare’s Philip the Bastard, a slightly less despicable prototype for King Lear’s Machiavellian bastard, Edmund, gives the right mix of charisma and cunning. One of the play’s most memorable moments, when Hubert (George Lea) must murder Arthur (Joseph Woodman) at the king’s orders, was also leant intensity and poignancy by the actors.

The play suffered a little from abridgement, as is the case with much Shakespeare at the Fringe. This adaptation relied a little too heavily on plot as a result of boiling the play down to its essentials, and it was also a pity that Queen Elinor’s (Ioana Duta) role was diminished — for her own sake, and because her unhealthy influence over John might have fleshed out his character. However, little can be done about the standard 60-minute running time for most Fringe shows.

Alex Thomas directs with some visual flair, particularly during the confrontations between France and England where huge flags are unfurled, and the two kings’ dispute with Angiers (Lea again) from offstage was well conceived. Much of the time, Thomas plays it safe, however, and the promotional materials’ claim that the production highlights the narrative’s modern relevance is perhaps exaggerated.

The end result is not too shabby, though, and a good degree of passion and energy is injected into Shakespeare’s dramatic tale. Whilst not the most adventurous take on King John, it still provides an entertaining hour of murder and rebellion for audiences to sink their teeth into.

Reviews by Simon Fearn

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The Blurb

MCS Drama presents a new adaptation of King John, one of the least performed but most political and gravely comic of Shakespeare’s history plays. In a radical reinterpretation of what academics consider to be Shakespeare’s most unhistorical of all his history plays, our production will explore how the play’s concerns with legitimate rule, rebellion and what is right resonate in a modern day setting. Marking the 800th anniversary of King John’s death, this production will ‘look into the blots and stains of right’ in a fast-paced, riotous edit of the original text.