The Royal Shakespeare Company’s latest venture is Shakespeare’s rarely performed play King John – their new production has modern resonance to the world we live in today.
Rosie Sheehy is playing King John in the RSC’s new production. “When I was first cast I was terrified, but I guess that’s an immediate reaction because it is such a mammoth role,” Rosie said. “It’s an epic play that spans around 17 years of King John’s reign. So you really do feel like you’re taking on the whole tale of someone’s life.”
When King John’s throne is under threat, people believe John’s young nephew Arthur has stronger claim to the English crown and the French army are ready to support Arthur’s bid for his inheritance. King John goes to extreme lengths to protect his throne in his dramatic story of turmoil.
“Max Johns has done an incredible job on the design, King John has a real androgynous look and one of the outfits is inspired by Billy Porter’s outfit at the Oscars,” Rosie said. “I wear lots of suits, but that doesn’t mean I am male. Gender hasn’t really played a massive part and it’s incredibly freeing as an actor. Although King John is heavy-handed and has a lust for violence, there hasn’t been a real emphasis on being male and I certainly don’t feel extremely female in it.
“It is fluid which has been amazing. There has been some talk about the pronouns because we aren’t changing the ‘he’ and it is King John not Queen John, but I sort of just play him as me.”
Rosie explained that usually when approaching Shakespeare you try and read around it as much as possible. “I started reading King John’s biography by Marc Morris. It really does take you step by step through the family tree, to him taking power, right through to the Magna Carta,” she said.
“You realise he was a man that was brought up without love and attention, he was nicknamed John Lackland because no one ever thought that he would own any land. Then really by chance he became King because the people before him died. So there was a real need for him to hold on to the throne because he never thought he would have it.”
I am trying to find as much empathy in him as possible. He was brought up without the love of his parents and his mother was imprisioned for a lot of his life. I suppose a lot of dictators lack love,” Rosie explains. “You can’t really play tyranny, there has to be a reason why people are so awful and they don’t think they are, so I think I am trying to find reason and as much humility with this man. Really he is a young King who is impulsive and frantic. He is making decisions on the spot just to get it right. Being so young, he is just under so much pressure and gets it wrong so many times.”
As a female actor, Rosie feels she can bring something really different to the role. “I think I bring a different edge – and it’s shocking,” Rosie said. “Our reference to dictatorship or power, especially that we regard as evil, we never really see women in that role. We never see women ordering the killing of people. It definitely throws up a great question of where is that lack of maternal instinct?”
Rosie feels it is so relevant performing this play during our political climate. “I’ve been coming home from rehearsal and turning on the TV and parliament is just there, you of course as an actor think about the message,” she said.
“The rhetoric that’s being used, I was listening to Boris talk about Labour surrendering and Labour being the surrendering party, and you just think, ‘god no one is at war.’ It is such an important play, but I think the last time they performed it was around 2012 and of course then if you remember David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband were all fighting to be Prime Minister. It just seems every time this play is performed, it is reflecting society. As a society, we are all responsible for it.
“Theatre is escapism but it parallels today.”
Working at the Royal Shakespeare Company has been a dream come true for Rosie. “I’ve never worked at the RSC before, I’ve never even done a full Shakespeare play professionally,” she explains. “To be able to do a Shakespeare at the RSC feels amazing. You are so supported, everyone is so on board. There is so much time to work freely, to be bold, to really get things wrong. Being up in Stratford is so beautiful, you are right near his birth place – without sounding really ridiculous there is something really sacred about it. It is an environment where you can really explore.”
It’s a huge play that is set to be bursting with theatricality. With its unique approach, it is a refreshing take on the historical story.
“I hope that people have a brilliant evening because it is epic, there are dance routines, massive fight scenes, I think people will be really blown away, Rosie said.
“I hope people think about who is in power and are we right to regret it, should we regret it? I don’t want people to be filled with dread, that is definitely not the message. People will leave hopefully being blown away and they might realise that dictatorship and certain types of rule, impulsive decisions and people not knowing enough information is terrifying. It does ask, are we complicit in the mess we’ve made? I hope it will make people think.”
King John is on at the RSC’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon until the 21st of March 2020. Tickets and information can be found on their website.
Photo credit // Sam Allard