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Brighton Year-Round 2020

Low Down

Directed by Conor Baum these scratch performances involve a settled pool of actors working through the entire Shakespearean canon and apocrypha. Some props are deployed.


A tedious brief tragedy? It’s barely 20,000 words, quite short. So what is it about this most unloved play? It’s 1596, when Shakespeares first great flush of 1595 – culminating in Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream – was behind him. And it was incredibly popular in the 19th century – leading to the curious first of being the cinema’s first glimpse of Shakespeare: a scene from King John in 1908. Victorian melodrama perhaps.

There’s a thought it might have been an earlier play retouched, though this performance reveals remarkable things: far greater poetry than most of us imagine. And though the scenes and death (spoiler!) of Prince Arthur is seen as the highlight, the dominating figure of Faulconbridge the Bastard is cited: he’s as living as any history play character after the giants Richard III, Richard II, Falstaff and Hal. His way of parodying and flinging back words of an antagonist is unique to him.

The One Fell Swoop Project’s Zoom Shakespeare has becomes serious. By King John it’s gone up gears and OFS is fast gelling. In fact this zoom production proves engrossing and completely changes this writer’s view of the play, even more than the revelatory James Dacre production for the Globe in 2015 for instance – its first ever there.

Helmed by actor/director Conor Baum OFS is a mainline online addiction, not just for actors, but an increasingly large number of actors looking on as well as those signed up to watch this odyssey of scratch Shakespeare.

King John is potentially superb. Or perhaps it’s half a good play when women predominate, plus a fine eighth when Arthur arrives, or sprinkled with great power whenever the Bastard opens his mouth or smites off a head (the luckless Austria with his lion’s skin) or throws back fleering parodies of the speaker.

The most static of static scenes – outside Angiers – has all of this with the women rampant for mercies and policy. There’s three predominant here. We’ve seen this in Richard III but here it’s less ritualised, more parry, thrust and being on the wrong side of a treaty.

King John could have been about villainy: John was so hated no-one else became John II. But you can’t out-hunchback Richard III. Shakespeare chooses slippery diplomacy as the cast suggest. And forget Runneymede. There’s parleys, switching of sides twice over in a day over a marriage and an excommunication; which reverses. It’s a perpetual pattern and maybe Shakespeare – stitching as he can – has to lose himself in making/breaking treaties. Yawn.

And yet… Though Robert Cohen’s King John is the titular character he’s not the dominating one and has less to say than other kings. Nevertheless such saturnine equivocation is neatly taken by Cohen who invests melancholy in Machiavel. On his creature Hubert’s reporting the death of Arthur, then revealing he’s not dead, Cohen riddles the very squirming of John with flickers of dyspeptic majesty.

Lexi Pickett’s Philip Faulconbridge – swiftly known as the Bastard – dominates. Her speaking the language with a fling and enormous energy – fleet-running caesura snatched in a mailed fist – is glorious stuff. Pickett grasps the skirling, ultimately dignified Bastard, a kind of raging John Bull prepared to prop kinsman John. Energetic with a clear sense of exactly where she’s going, she relishes the part.

Pity the hurt dignity of Seth Morgan’s Robert Faulconbridge the younger legitimate brother who’s not the bastard son of Richard Coeur de Lion, but just wants and get his lands, leaving the vaunt of fame to Philip (Philip no more, his very name changes to Bastard and he gets the last lines). Or even his mother Joanna Rosenfeld’s Lady Faulconbridge invested with dignity as she tells of her near-rape by the former king. Rosenfeld takes on small parts always instinct with loss, imminent or upon her.

King John is indeed remarkable for strong women. Christine Kempell’s steely Queen Eleanor, with her ruthless scheming (in history she was on Arthur’s side) is poison queen, taken here with a wild sneering relish. The mother from hell Roisin Brehony’s Constance, widow of John’s elder brother Geoffrey sacrifices son Arthur in a proxy bid for the throne. Her grief, railing at Conor Baum’s Archbishop Pandulph isn’t less harrowing for self-infliction.

Brehony, new to this company, switches pizzazzy confidence with importuning: first for advancement, then tragically for the death of her comfort in widowhood. Brehony doesn’t hold back, rending her hair, making this character more sympathetic than just tragically thwarted. Blanche the third character (below) is even more conflicted.

Jenny Rowe’s politic Chatillion is one of those diplomats whose fate is to shuttle between courts like a lobbed ball though cannon and guns are deployed as imagery about 140 years before the west and England got around to using them at Crécy. Rowe knits her brows in suppressed exasperation at messages she’s required to convey.

David Oliver Simmons’ King Philip is a wonder of oleaginous seeming. Simmons captures the politic Philip with a youthful breeziness that proclaims a king capable of smiles and treachery: the paradigm of French guile to Elizabethan eyes.

His son – Rosanna Bini’s Dauphin – is a conflicted tennis ball, of more weight than shuttlecocks but a pawn indeed, and Bini suggests his essential helplessness. There’s affecting scenes between Bini, Simmons and Kirsty Geddes’ main part as the Dauphin’s new bride from the opposite camp (not just English, she’s in fact Spanish!).

This takes Blanche to split loyalties in a grief of being a few hours’ bridge who memorably speaks of losing on every side: the epitome of civil war, something Henry VI exploits. Geddes plays the last-gasp appearing Prince Henry (future Henry III) and French Herald. Supremely here she traces Blanche’s arc from obedient, willing princess to torn wife in a matter of hours.

Baum’s sinewy tricksy Pandulph drives the plot, excommunicating John, reinstating him; pricking on Simmons’ impetuous King Philip to invade, pricking him off again. Baum’s consummate in these glinting politic roles, lending the aged Pandulph a sheen of youthful caprice. Only John’s death brings peace with the loyal Bastard restoring England’s spirits with Prince Henry.

Sharon Drain proves one of the production’s several strengths too. The small part of Essex she dispatches before becoming the defiant Angiers Citizen replete with cod accent but in fact investing that role with force and quiet defiance, as well as determined neutrality. She impresses briefly towards the end as the fatally wounded French Melun warning the English lords of the French king’s intent, and the near-silent Gurney.

Ben Baeza’s Arthur is conflicted like all Shakespearean children for mixing precocity and arch wit with piteousness: it’s still a fine characterisation with memories of mopped brows. Baeza plays it straight like a young adult – as in fact Arthur nearly was. Like the Bastard, Arthur vivifies – and pleads for – this play’s reinstatement.

Wedded to him in these affecting scenes is John Andrews’ conflicted hitman Hubert as he’s pulled to decency – Andrews appears black-masked with what looks like chic executioner’s gear in black; and a heavy accent. It’s great fun, his scenes with Cohen’s John spell writhing conscience back and forth.

Karina Mills joins Andrews as the brief Executioner as well as ill-starred prophet Peter of Pomfret, brushing the one with heartfelt relief at not dispatching Arthur; and the other with a befuddled innocence.

Ross Gurney-Randall’s Salisbury is anther late stand-out, where this figure rises to become the fourth most important player. Gurney-Randall is steeped in history and performance and his gravelly bass-baritone delivers words as if underscored with weary policy and dispatch. There’s weight and dark clarity.

Deborah Kearne’s Pembroke is Salisbury’s second, a more pensive, emotionally-drawn character without the fathom of Salisbury’s experience, and by contrast an affecting performance: a goodish person’s lament. Katey Fraser takes smaller roles – English Herald and Messenger – before emerging as Bigot, the third of this trio. Bigot’s well if not bigoted, blimpish. Mainly an echo-chamber he peppers scenes with refracted outrage which Fraser points up with vim.

Cohen proves though the memorable images studding this work. John’s signature dying is indelible: ‘I am a scribbled form, drawn with a pen. Upon a parchment, and against this fire.’

There’s occasional mute glitches that bedevil the Zoom generation – this time one actor wasn’t able to participate and another covered her. Increasingly though these scratch performances take on the quality of a company.

This time all actors here find their verse-feet. Some are quite obviously flying over them. In that way it improves over Romeo and Juliet which started slowly. Here everyone’s on top of the sense from the start.

The overall camaraderie, running gags throughout the series (‘alarum’ a favourite and Geddes’ kazoo duly obliges with every ‘trumpet’ direction too) and a familiar feel to a company is making this Online Shakespeare unique. Not just because it’s the most wide-ranging traversal, but because of that settled pool of actors sharing an ethos. There’s future in this. And it’s fun. Yes King John is fun… It’s been said.