Josie Rourke's production is excellent value, with all the quality marks of the RSC brand. There is lots of fencing and battling and expiring, all excitingly choreographed and backed up by thrilling sound effects. The verse-speaking is of a high standard, particularly in the case of Patrick Robinson (Salisbury) and David Fielder (Cardinal Pandulph).
Peter McKintosh's costumes (medieval with a bit of input from Comme des Garçons) are attractive, and of course there's the rarity of the play's revival. The RSC presented it a few years ago, but it is only the Complete Works Festival that accounts for another version. The production has pace and vitality, but one leaves feeling that one hasn't received full weight.
The problem is exemplified by the two main performances, one too lively, the other too dull. The part of John, who is mean and craven, is not one of Shakespeare's best, and one might think Richard McCabe's plodding interpretation sufficient had one not seen Guy Henry's mesmerising, creepily whimsical monarch. This actor is indecisive when he should suggest a deeper defect, and when he tries to be fierce, he does it with popped eyes or arms akimbo.
Given the drama's lack of a comic character and of a love interest, it seems perverse to complain of Joseph Millson, who, as Philip the Bastard, slashes his way through the part with impishness and sex appeal. But this actor, who seems to have attended the Douglas Fairbanks School for Bastards, becomes tiresome halfway through his first appearance, with his antic mannerisms. In the second half, the Bastard does act more normally, but before that he is exhausting rather than enlivening.
On the female side, Sorcha Cusack is perfectly fine and perfectly unmemorable as the king's mother; Tamsin Greig, the mother of his rival, suggests a City wife disappointed by her husband's bonus rather than a traduced and grieving queen. In sum, while this King John more than adequately lives up to the RSC label, the most important ingredient is missing, one that isn't listed on the tin.
To 10 October (0870 609 1110)