BWW Reviews: KING JOHN Impresses at the Stratford Festival
King John, who reigned as the monarch of England from 1199-1216, was the son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the father of Henry III. The Shakespearean script concerning his reign is one of the true history plays by the Bard and is one of only two of his plays, the other being "Richard II," that are written entirely in script.
"King John" is one of the Bard's cannon that does not get produced very often. Maybe it's because there is no horror in the play, or not as much as in many Shakespearean works John also is not quite as dramatically psychotic as Lady Macbeth, Othello, or King Lear. He is not the type of character who issues a long Hamlet-like soliloquy to ponder power, relationships and angst. He is not love driven as Romeo. He is not as delightful as the characters in "Midsummer Nights Dream" or "The Taming of the Shrew."
Shakespeare's John is "simple, not given to reflection, and doesn't agonize over decisions." He "comes across as ambitious, arrogant, and lacking in foresight."
This is basically a history recounting play that, in a good production, grabs and holds attention with good writing and an interesting, but not spectacular tale. Stratford's staging does exactly that!
John was the youngest of five brothers. According to the law of succession, he was not in line to gain the throne, but he outlived all of his brothers, including Richard the Lionhearted. He was considered a weak king because of his willingness to give concessions to King Phillip II of France and compromised in other ways, as well as his lack of personal magnetism, but reigned for seventeen years. Writing a play about him does not allow for the blood and guts and hysteria afforded other Shakespeare monarchs.
John is most remembered for his conflict with the Pope, brought about because he would not faithfully follow the orders of Cardinal Pandulph, the Pope's legate and his signing of the Magna Carta. The former is dealt with in the script, the latter is not.
At the end of the play, in saying his final goodbyes to his son and the few noblemen still loyal to him, King John sums up his essence when he states, "I am scribbled form, drawn with a pen/Upon a parchment."
The play's plot develops as a messenger from France arrives in the English court, demanding that King John abdicate his throne in favor of his nephew, Arthur. The messenger speaks for King Philip of France, who supports Arthur's claim as the rightful heir to the throne. When John refuses to step down, France threatens war.
Through many twists and turns, the plot weaves a tale. There are attacks on the English-held town of Angers. There is a confrontation with Pandolf, an ambassador from the Pope who excommunicates John when the King refuses to accept the Pope's posting of an archbishop. There are attempts to overthrow John. There is the tale of Arthur, the heir apparent who is supposedly killed by one of the King's nobles, but, in fact, the boy is released, only to die when he falls or get pushed off a bridge. John and Pandolf resolve their differences, only to have John poisoned by a monk at a monastery, where he had been awaiting reports from the battlefield. John dies. The lords swear allegiance to John's son, Prince Henry. Blackout.
The play is long, but the Stratford production, under the direction of Tim Carroll, is well staged, well paced, and intriguing. The costumes, staging, impressionistic sets and clear language interpretation all add up to a fine experience. The stage, which is a runway thrust, allows for a close relationship between the audience and the cast. This is the type of script which gains from such a relationship.
Tom McCamus develops King John as a realistic person. He underplays rather than ranting, thus living rather than acting the role. Graham Abbey nicely creates Philip, The Bastard, as a multi-dimensional character. Brian Tree is properly uptight as Cardinal Pandulph. Seana McKenna as Constance, mother of Arthur, and Patricia Collins as Queen Eleanor, mother to King John, both are regally correct.
Capsule judgement: Stratford's "King John" is an impressive and compelling production. This is not one of Shakespeare's blood and guts plays but grabs and holds the audience with language rather than action. Since the script is not often done, this is an excellent opportunity to gain exposure by seeing a fine performance.