REVIEW: King John. RSC. Stratford.

Understudies were out in force for this particular presentation of King John on October 26, but that only served to reveal the sheer professionalism of the RSC.

There were absolutely no disappointments, and only a short delay before the doors were opened and the history play could begin. An ominous note in the programme had revealed this would not be business as usual for the company. It stated: “Due to the indisposition of Rosie Sheehy and Tom McCall, the part of King John will be played by Nadi Kemp-Sayfi, the part of Hubert will be played by Nicholas Gerard-Martin, the part of Blanche will be played by Sarah Adha and the part of Chatillon will be played by Ali Gadema.”

Whether this was due to an autumn bug, the RSC wasn’t saying; but the show did go on, and it was a triumph.

The RSC continues in its present fascination with swapping gender roles by casting a woman in the role of King John, and this worked very well, no least because the actual King John was hardly a beefy warrior male (unlike his famous brother, Richard the Lionheart). Kemp-Sayfi as King John was a high-wire act of ambition, malice and vulnerability: using charm and promises to get her way and reluctant to acknowledge her evil desires, such as the murder of her helpless little nephew and rival, Prince Arthur (played most ably by Ethan Phillips). But the star of the show was surely Nicholas Gerard-Martin as the moral ‘everyman’ figure, Hubert, who struggles to maintain his humanity and dignity in a world gone mad. Katherine Pearce as the ‘Mother Church’ figure, Cardinal Pandulph, was also sublime - bringing a touch of comedy reminiscent of ‘Mrs Doyle’ from Father Ted to the stage, and also a chilling blend of insincere good will and poison.

This was a political world with international stakes: oddly familiar with its deals and broken promises. As ever, Shakespeare speaks to modern times.

King John runs at The Swan in Stratford until March 21.