As with so many Shakespeare histories, the question of legitimacy is central: John has inherited the throne from his brother Richard I, but middle brother Geoffrey left a son, Arthur (Laurence Belcher,) whose claim to the throne should be stronger than his. But quite apart from John's own wish for power, there's the fact that Arthur has been raised by the hated French.
Early on the play is dominated by women, from Barbara Marten's take-no-prisoners Eleanor of Aquitane, to a memorable Constance from Tanya Moodie, playing Arthur's power-hungry mother as pretty much demented. Aruhan Galieva is the victim of the early dealings between England, France and Rome as Blanche of Castile: One of many funny scenes sees her stoically accept her political marriage to Louis the Dauphin (Ciarán Owens,) who's notably more enthusiastic about the match than she is once he decides she reminds him of himself. But when the Cardinal arrives to kick things off again, Blanche is the one stuck in the middle.
Needs a big hat
Having played King John himself in the RSC's excellent 2012 production, Alex Waldmann gets what looks like a demotion but is actually a bigger role as John's illegitimate nephew the Bastard, the quasi-chorus figure whom Waldmann gives a lot of audience interaction. The John/Bastard relationship doesn't spark with chemistry here like it sometimes can, but instead Dacre uses them as contrast: Stone-Fewings' John has a clipped, nasal delivery that makes him sound like a parody of Laurence Olivier - very much a man playing at majesty, but whose actions are petulant and constantly blow up in his face, commanding little respect; while it's left to Waldmann's Bastard to bring the fire and enthusiasm to the troops (as well as a bit of gore when he kills Giles Terera's Austria and parades his head among the groundlings.)
It's not a perfect production but it's not far off, as so often happens actually seeing King John on stage makes you wonder why it should be such a rarity. Dacre's production doesn't quite go for a distinct identity but it does handle the wild changes in tone well. There's also great attention to detail, whether it's the whole theatre standing in for the belligerent French town of Angiers, or Belcher's Arthur getting lost among the bodies arguing over his right to the crown. It's also particularly well-served by Orlando Gough's music, used in a cinematic way that helps speed the action along at a heady pace.
King John by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 27th of June at Shakespeare's Globe.
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.