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Review: Exeter University Shakespeare Company’s Sell-Out Production ‘King John’

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Exeter chapter.

Content Warning: brief mentions of suicide, child-loss and mental illness.

Most drama companies would shy away from a play as underrepresented as Shakespeare’s ‘King John’, but not Exeter Universities Shakespeare Company. The sell-out production was bought to life at the intimate Cygnett Theatre in Exeter, by director Lizzy Thistlethwayte and the talented minds behind and on the chequered, chess-style stage.

Through a series of shocking twists and turns, King John ultimately faces check mate and in true Shakespeare style, dies a bloody death. Director Lizzy Thistlethwayte alongside her talented team take this unsung play and truly make it one to remember.

If you aren’t familiar with Shakespeare’s political-history play ‘King John’, it dramatises the reign of King John of England and the conflict between the French and English reign from 1199 to 1216. John wants to remain King, France want Arthur (John’s nephew) to be King, and in the fight to win the title, both John and Arthur face their misfortune. The play explores themes of loyalty, power and politics and the consequences of decisions made in a fight for titles.

Exeter University Shakespeare Co. make one thing clear: history plays do not have to be boring. This is made apparent from the moment the audience settles in, as King John (played by the talented Zoe Souter) comes swaggering into the first act, surrounded by paparazzi and asked to speak on ‘the death of Richard the lionhearted former CEO of Sunapis International’.

It is not easy to add well executed comedic elements to tragic plays, but it is no challenge for Exeter University Shakespeare Co. At multiple times the audience erupted into laughs as confetti cannons were fired, drinks were downed and audience members briefly became a part of the cast shaking hands with the characters.

Not only were there laughs but there were at times a few watery eyes. Admittedly, it takes a lot to make me cry, but the character of Constance (played by Izzy Maunder) got me! Izzy’s talent was unforgettable. Her execution of the monologue (Act 3, Scene 4) in which she finds her son Arthur (played by Ellie Baker) missing was nothing short of perfection. The entire audience were left in awe as she gut-wrenchingly navigated the feelings of maternal grief, despair and mania.

Sensitive topics surrounding suicide, child-loss and mental health were navigated delicately yet so effectively. In Arthurs (played by Ellie Baker) suicide scene, as he fell backward he was caught in a trust-fall by the other members of the cast and slowly taken off stage in a contemporary style dance movement. The sensitivity to this scene did not go unnoticed.

Creative producer Georgia Thomas focuses the play somewhere in the 21st century whilst sticking to original Shakespearean script. Paparazzi and news announcements are called at various times, incorporating modern technology, tabloid press and fame. Electric music occasionally flooded the stage and the dancing elements added a new creative flare which can often be left out of Shakespeare productions.

Intricately woven within the set were the colours red and blue symbolising England and France. Costume designer Kate Spalding and hair and makeup designer Ruby Brimakeup had the ‘French’ characters wearing subtle blue elements such as blue nail-polish, earrings and ties, and had the ‘English’ characters rocking red. The attention to detail from the creative team was astounding, from the chess boards ever presence on stage to the filing cabinets having blue and red subtly lining the outsides.

What I found particularly refreshing and powerful to see was the gender-reversed roles with the typically male characters of King John, Arthur, Lewis and King Phillip played by women. Gendered power dynamics went out the window and instead Zoe Souter, Ellie Baker, Gracie Purton and Susanna Shields took control of the stage and demanded to be heard. As did Cardinal Randulph (Rosie Jones) and Judge (Robin Cartledge), whom of which embodied strong, feminine power with Randulph serving absolute boss, manipulating the characters in her pink power suit.

Moreover, the casting of Zoe Souter as King John was perfect. Her stage presence was awe-inspiring and you simply could not take your eyes off of her. Fitted for the majority of the performance in a sharp suit and golden head piece, she truly embodied the definition of power. The steady decline in King John’s character was executed well as he began the play radiating arrogance, winking at the paparazzi and pouting for the press to eventually begging for his life with blood dripping from his mouth and tears in his eyes.

The production team ensured the whole performance flowed steadily, from the music to the lighting and staging each part were executed to perfection. Even when a member of the cast was unfortunately injured, it was played off so incredibly well that I, and most of the audience, thought it was simply part of the performance.

I am extremely grateful to have been invited to watch and review King John at the Cygnet Theatre and cannot wait to see what they have in store next. The audience clearly shared my amazement for the talent and effort put into the performance as they erupted into applause and gave a more-than-deserved standing ovation at the end.

One word to sum it up: incredible.

Hey I’m Esmé. Currently, I’m in my final year studying English (Early Modern & Advanced Critical Theory) at Exeter University in the hope of becoming a writer & lecturer. I want to give a voice to the voiceless and explore all the weird and wonderful things about our world and the people in it. I’m particularly interested in disability, race, sexuality & gender and how these factors have and continue to influence people’s lives.