I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about Shakespeare’s King John that doesn’t at some point call it something along the lines of “infrequently performed” or “seldom seen.” So consider this your requisite mention of the fact that for most of its life, people have considered King John pretty crap. After all, it is a play about King John that includes neither of his reign’s two most famous features: Robin Hood (technically from when he was Prince John, I guess) and the Magna Carta.
But the common thread between both these well-known stories and Shakespeare’s play is John’s illegitimacy as a ruler. As the villainous Prince in Robin Hood stories, he has all but usurped his older brother, Richard the Lionheart, off fighting in the crusades. And he was forced at sword-point by his nobles to sign the Magna Carta (or so the simplified version goes), promising them certain rights in the face of his mismanagement of the kingdom.
Shakespeare’s John is a temperamental tyrant, stoutly backed by his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, in seizing the throne from his older brother Geoffrey’s son Arthur after the death of his oldest brother, King Richard. By right of primogeniture, the throne should be Arthur’s, and Geoffrey’s widow Constance has rallied the French king and his son Louis to fight for Arthur’s claim.
If this sounds vaguely confusing… it is. Or at least Shakespeare sometimes makes it seem that way. Part of King John‘s checkered production history doubtless has to do with the fact that the play’s plot seems to careen out of control, devolving into subplots and intrigues that spring up seemingly out of nowhere. But director James Dacre and the company do a remarkable job of sifting through the loose threads, highlighting apparently throw-away lines (like an early comment of John’s about looting monasteries for money for his wars) that gain unexpected significance later on and teasing out unexpected resonances that help shape the central characters’ journeys, even if many of them (by Shakespeare’s design, not a failing of the actors) are lines and circles rather than arcs.
Music features heavily, not just as background or pre-show adornment, but within the scenes themselves. Lines are set to music, and many of the scene transitions are accompanied with hymn-like, choral settings of particularly essential words and phrases, which also helps to knit the play– which skips from darkly comic to tragic to political with abandon– into a more cohesive-feeling whole.
But all of Dacre’s excellent work in structuring the production would be worthless if it weren’t resting on such excellent performances. Jo Stone-Fewings’s King John is splendidly petulant. He has the perfect look of a medieval king, which literalizes the contradiction Queen Eleanor astutely notes in the opening scenes: that his kingship is a question of appearances and possession, not of right.
Barbara Marten and Tanya Moodie’s rival queens Eleanor and Constance are formidable and stately. Constance’s eleventh-hour lament for her captured son is a staple overwrought audition monologue, and it was a breath of fresh air to hear it delivered with a dignified grief that did not blunt the character’s sharp intelligence.
The show-stealing role is that of Philip Falconbridge, the bastard son of John’s older brother Richard, the only entirely fictional main character in any of Shakespeare’s histories. Alex Waldmann combines irreverent charm, boisterous arrogance, and genuine feeling. Ciaran Owens does some scene-stealing of his own, making a big impact in the relatively small role of Louis the Dauphin, whose glowering and preening provides a silent, foppish parallel to the Bastard’s running commentary. The stubborn confidence of Owens’ Louis, particularly in the later scenes, shifts the play away from Shakespeare’s usual characterizations of the cowardly, villainous French, and instead casts much of the blame for the play’s chaos on Cardinal Pandulph (Joseph Marcell), a meddling Papal legate.
The date of King John’s composition is uncertain, but most scholars put it in the mid 1590s, after Shakespeare had finished the Henry VI plays and Richard III, but before Richard II and the Henry IV plays. Watching it, however, the play that came to mind was Troilus and Cressida: they share a sharp cynicism at their heart, though King John ultimately offers at least a superficially hopeful conclusion. But the penultimate image is striking: the Bastard, not the soon-to-reign Prince Henry holds the crown– implying not, I think, some secret desire for usurpation, but the continuance of the cycle that began with Eleanor and Constance: those who might be best suited for power can only– because of their birth, their class, their gender– watch from the sidelines.
Stay tuned, as well… on June 13, King John will he performed in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for one night, and I’ll be there. I’m very excited to see how such sprawling, combat-filled show fits into that little space, and I’ll be sure to write about it.