King John Director Maria Aberg explains her approach to the play.
How have you adapted the play at all?
The play has been cut quite a lot. This is to make more sense of the story which is quite complicated and also to put King John at the centre of the story.
The other thing I have done is change the gender of two of the characters including the central character of the Bastard.
The third thing is that the designer and I have decided to set it in a fictional contemporary world.
Those three things will hopefully make it like watching the play for the first time.
Why have you changed the sex of the Bastard and Pandulph?
It was an idea I first discussed with RSC Dramaturg Jeanie O'Hare and we decided to do draft and try it out and it turned out that once we had done that it changed the dynamic between a lot of the characters in an interesting way. And there is something quite glorious about seeing a woman play that sort of heroic warrior that you don't otherwise see played by women in Shakespeare.
So it was partly because it served the story well and partly it was my own personal curiosity to see a woman play that kind of part.
How long have you been working on the script with Jeanie?
We've been working on the script since around August last year. And we've just done a two week workshop with the company on the play. Jeanie has been there throughout.
Is there any extra contemporary dialogue in your version aside from the cuts?
It's a possibility that we are exploring.
What do the females bring to the roles?
It's very early to say after two weeks of workshops which have been very much about exploring and experimenting and much more to do with creating the world of the play rather than going into detail about the text. We've done a read through of the play and we looked at the text over the course of one day, so it's a bit too early to say what Paola Dionisotti and Pippa Nixon will bring to the roles of Pandulph and The Bastard.
Can you tell us a bit more about the kind of world you expect King John will be set in?
I think it's going to be quite a hedonistic world where political backstabbing and greed and political ideological insecurity is very present. And it will be a world where family will be very important.
Why do you think King John is produced so rarely – even at the RSC?
We talked about this a little at the workshops. We are all flabbergasted, as we think it's such an amazing play. I think it's really relevant, really exciting and has some fantastic characters in it. And something that surprised me over the last month I guess is that it has a lot of heart. So I don't know.
Is this the first time that you have directed a play by Shakespeare?
Yes it is. I was an Associate Director with Dominic Cooke on the RSC's productions of Pericles and The Winter's Tale – the late plays in the Swan in 2006.
I was terrified to begin with. But as the excitement about the work and the company takes over and you forget about that just and turn the adrenaline into creativity and now I'm fine about it.
How are you finding working with Roxana Silbert and the play being part of Nations At War.
I think it's fantastic. It's really nice to see the plays linking up. And I think they may link up even more than we think now. The casting process with Roxana (who is directing Richard III and A Soldier in Every Son – The Rise of the Aztecs) was fantastic. We both have a background in new plays so share the same vocabulary and taste in a lot of instances. So it's been very positive so far.
What will Paola Dionisotti and Pippa Nixon bring to the roles of Pandulph and The Bastard?
Both are amazing actors. Paola Dionisotti has a wealth of experience and I'm excited about working with Pippa Nixon again. She was in Roy Williams' The Days of Significance both in Stratford and London. She's done a lot of work at the Globe and the RSC since so the part has come to her at the right time. It will be interesting to see what she makes of it.
What about Alex Waldman who is playing King John?
He's new to the RSC and I think he's absolutely phenomenal. It's very exciting to watch someone approach the part and the world and have that feeling that you've made the right decision in casting someone. I think he's absolutely perfect. Alex is a lot younger than your average King John.
Nations at War has a predominantly female creative team – will this bring a particular perspective to the stories and take on war?
That's impossible to answer. I know that when Roxana was asked what it's like to direct something as a woman she said – I don't know – I've never directed anything as a man – which I think is a great answer.
I will bring what I will bring to it as a human being. It's impossible for me to say what I bring to this as a woman. I am also a lot of other things.
Watch a video about the female cast and creatives in Nations at War for International Women's Day 2012.
Being Swedish, how do you find working on Shakespeare's text in your second language?
You have to do a bit more work and have your glossary around you – but it's a play like any other really I've been working in England for quite a while now and it doesn't feel too overwhelming a challenge.
What else have you been working on?
Last summer I directed Belongings at the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs and The Trafalgar Studios in London.
Before that I was in Germany working on a version of Kafka's America and before that I was in Sweden directing a production of Dennis Kelly's Love and Money.
I'm going back to Sweden later this year to direct another play. It's been a nice combination of different kinds of work.
Photo: Maria in rehearsal for King John, by Keith Pattison.