In this Olympics year, the Royal Shakespeare Company open their contribution to the World Shakespeare Festival with two plays - both directed by women - under the umbrella title Nations At War.
While Richard III with its charismatic villain is one of Shakespeare's most popular plays, King John - one of the nation's more wimpish monarchs - is understandably rarely produced.
The company's problem is that since its recent staging of the eight-play epic cycle of medieval histories, Richard III demands the context of the political power struggles and military mayhem that savaged the country for a century if it is to be more than the study of a Machiavellian monster
It's been a favourite role for generations of leading actors through the ages and, following in the footsteps of Laurence Olivier, Jonjo O'Neill certainly contributes to the roll call of magnetic modern Richards.
But his is no malignant, deformed spider injecting his poisonous ambitions into all who stand in his way to the crown.
O'Neill, part psychopathic child, part stage clown, is either gleefully confiding his game plan to the audience or directing and acting in his charade to convince the people that this deeply religious soul might be reluctantly persuaded to take the throne for the sake of his beloved nation. At times the control slips, as when the playful wrestling match with the young Duke of York turns into a murderous attack on the child.
Once the crown is his, the manic burlesque is replaced with desperation as his crimes and his victims return to haunt him.
The other characters, here lost in the complex dynastic relationships, are essentially secondary.
Richard's equally self-seeking political fellow players are gullible targets while the women, who get more of a showing here than in many Shakespearean productions, suffer. But not in silence.
Paola Dionisotti's termagant Queen Margaret tutors her fellow victims, Siobhan Redmond's Queen Elizabeth and Sandra Duncan's Duchess of York, in the scalding litany of curses to heap upon the head of the figure who has butchered their children.
If Roxana Silbert's production has been to an extent circumscribed by the play's theatre history, Maria Alberg has taken the opportunity to rejig, even recast, Shakespeare's lesser-known King John.
It is rock'n'roll party time at the court of Bad King John, even though the threat of war with the French over his usurpation of the crown looms.
Alex Waldman's king is a spoilt adolescent under the tutelage of his mother, Siobhan Redmond's Queen Elinor. Across the Channel another mother, Susie Trayling's Constance, equally fiercely promotes the claim of her son, the doomed boy Arthur.
Alberg's most radical innovation is to cast Pippa Nixon as the dynamic Bastard who energises John's lacklustre cause with her mixture of heroic anarchism and bravado.
The women rule the roost in this world of stuffed male egos - the Pope's legate, Pandulph, is also recast as a woman with Paola Donisotti lecturing the political players and manipulating their war games.
The play is book-ended with Nixon leading the audience through a jaded chorus of Land of Hope and Glory at the opening - apologising that she doesn't know the words to the rest so we'll have to hum - and concludes with possibly the play's only memorable lines, a paean to nationalism: "Naught shall make us rue if England to itself do rest but true!"
The irony of these two modern dress productions is not lost with our present state shaped by Blair and Cameron, the oily Richard and cartoon John of our time.
Both plays run in repertoire until September 15. Box office: (0844) 800-1110.
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