by Gail M. Burns, AUGUST, 2005.

“John, John, bad King John,
Shamed the throne that he sat on…”

Thus begins a poem by Herbert and Eleanor Farjeon that was my childhood introduction to this monarch. The illustration that accompanied it showed John, knees akimbo, posed as if ready to flee the scene at a moment’s notice. He is scrawny and black a’vised, with lowering eyebrows and an evil stringy moustache. Below him stand three cross-looking barons holding the Magna Carta and pointing fiercely at the blank signature line.

Although Shakespeare’s play is obscure and seldom performed, most people are familiar with King John (lived 1167-1216; reigned 1199-1216) as either the Magna Carta king or as Robin Hood’s nemesis. Shakespeare makes no mention of either. Since before John’s death popular history has cast him as a “bad” king, while his elder brother King Richard I (reigned 1189-1199), also known as Lionheart or Coeur de Lion, is cast as the “good” king. In point of fact both monarchs had their faults.

John was the fourth son* of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, whose family history is best known to American audiences from James Goldman’s 1966 Play The Lion in Winter which is currently being performed at the Dorset Theatre Festival if you want to really wallow in the infighting in the Angevin dynasty. The elder two sons, Henry and Geoffrey, died before their father. As the eldest living son, Richard ascended the throne on his father’s death. By right Geoffrey’s eldest son Arthur should have succeeded Richard, but instead Eleanor saw to it that Richard named in his will his brother John as the next king. At that time England also ruled over several northern provinces in France, which authority was hotly contested.

As Shakespeare’s play opens France and England are at war. In an early scene King John (Allyn Burrows) and Queen Eleanor (Annette Miller) meet a new member of their family, Philip Faulconbridge who Eleanor recognizes as a bastard son of Richard’s. John knights him Sir Philip Plantagenet, but Shakespeare just refers to him as The Bastard (Peter Macon). Geoffrey’s widow Constance (Barbara Sims) has sought succor from King Philip of France (Walton Wilson) and his son Lewis, the Dauphin (Mark Saturno). She wants to see the teenaged Arthur (Susannah Millonzi) succeed to the throne. At the battle for the city of Angiers, a clever citizen named Hubert de Burgh (Kenajuan Bentley) suggests a marriage between Lewis and John’s niece Blanche of Spain (Ashley Bryant) which alliance, and John’s dowry gift of five French provinces, creates an uneasy peace between France and England.

But the festivities are short lived as Cardinal Pandulph (Mel Cobb) arrives from Rome demanding that John appoint Pope Innocent III’s choice as Archbishop of Canterbury. John refuses and is excommunicated on the spot. Pandulph appeals to France’s loyalty and the two nations are once again at war. In the ensuing battle John manages to capture Arthur and take him back to Britain. To solidify his claim to the throne John has himself recoronated and orders Hubert, now his servant, to murder Arthur. Although Hubert can’t bring himself to kill the young prince, he tells John he has done so, and rumors of this deed infuriate the British nobles, who are represented in the play by the Earl of Salisbury (Dave Demke) and the Earl of Pembroke (Jonathan Croy). John panics and then is overjoyed when Hubert tells him the truth. In the meantime Arthur jumps from the battlements to escape from prison and dies in the fall. When his body is found the nobles side with France against John. John makes peace with Pandulph and with Rome, but that is too little too late to stop Lewis, who sees himself as rightful heir through his marriage to Blanche. John is brought word of the deaths of both his mother Eleanor and his sister-in-law Constance in France. As France and England battle, John is poisoned by a monk and dies. The British Lords abandon France and rally behind John’s nine-year-old son Henry (Meg Wieder) as the next king.

Shakespeare wrote this play 400 years after the events it depicts took place, and we are seeing it today another 400 years on. To Elizabethan audiences, the play presented clear parallels between current and past events. John was a younger son who ascended the throne through the will of King Richard I. Elizabeth was a younger daughter who ascended the throne through the will of Henry VIII. Both fought off attempts to claim the throne by the rightful heirs, who they eventually had assassinated. Both were locked in struggles against Rome and papal authority. Elizabeth was in fact directly descended from John, as were all the Tudor monarchs, through the marriage of his illegitimate daughter John to Llywelyn the Great of Wales.

Unfortunately, we today can easily draw parallels to current events, something director Tina Packer makes very evident in her production. In the Shakespeare & Company press release she is quoted as saying: “As I work on King John I am filled with a kind of despair: Will our violent behavior as human beings never change? Here we are: two countries fighting for ascendancy and religion enmeshed in the center of the battle. How do we pay for this war – economically and psychologically?”

All of this back story may make King John sound like a grim night at the theatre, but, while it sure ain’t Brigadoon, sitting through the three and a quarter hours is actually a powerful and fascinating experience. Packer and her cast tell the story very slowly and clearly. And Shakespeare has created a delightful everyman in the character of The Bastard, the only purely fictional character in the play. John is indeed depicted as a “bad” king and a bad person, but The Bastard is the complete opposite. He is the true hero of the play and Macon is fun to watch as he leads his character through transformations born of experience and heart.

Being introduced to a “new” Shakespearean play is always a revelation. I am told that King John reads very poorly, but it plays very well in this production. And it introduces us to wonderful female characters in Eleanor, Constance, the Bastard’s mother Lady Faulconbridge, and Blanche of Spain, as well as parts here played by women, the young princes Arthur and Henry. As Packer notes the female characters absolutely dominate the first three acts and then vanish completely, but while they are on the stage they are gripping. I now firmly believe that Constance is the greatest part Shakespeare ever wrote for a woman (I’ll change my mind next week, but she looks pretty spiffy today.)

Miller, Sims, and Diane Prusha, who plays Lady Faulconbridge, are all masterful older actresses. As I did in my review of Follies will reject the word “older” to describe them and dub them instead “vintage” with all the honor that word carries. It is wonderful to see them at work. Sims is absolutely mesmerizing in her Act III speech when she mourns Arthur’s capture and certain death. Legend has it that Shakespeare wrote King John shortly after his own son Hamnet died, and certainly Constance’s keening sounds authentic.

As Blanche Bryant is all radiant youth, when they finally release her from that sedan chair and lift the veil. Millonzi is absolutely amazing as the young Arthur. The scene between her and the equally excellent Bentley in which Arthur begs and secures his life from Hubert, was breathtaking. Wieder gets only one scene in which to win sympathy for young Henry, but she does so movingly. You will be happy to hear, after all this bloodshed, that King Henry III went on to reign for 56 years and died a natural death.

Burrows does a nice job of playing the King you love to hate. His John is quite the weasel, although seeing Burrows in his kingly robes did give me flashbacks to when he played King Henry V on the same stage in 2002. I have already praised Macon’s excellent work as The Bastard. Cobb is all smarmy righteousness as Pandulph. It is important to remember that the idea of the Bishop of Rome being supreme head of the church was only introduced in the 9th century of the Common Era and that by the 13th century there were still many kingdoms that bridled under the idea of submitting to the will of a foreign Pope.

As mothers are an important motif for Packer in King John she has equipped Pandulph with a traveling pieta statue, depicting Mary cradling the body of her crucified son. The imagery is not lost.

Martin Best has composed a score that is performed live on stage by musicians Bill Barclay, Steve Boss, Alejandro Simoes, and Benjamin Edwin-John Green. It uses medieval musical motifs but performs them on modern instruments. When this music combines with the din of the sword fights it brings a whole new meaning to the term “heavy metal”. But that is not to imply that the music is either inappropriate or unpleasant, it is actually a very apt accompaniment to the medieval mayhem on stage.

The appropriately spikey and war-like set pieces have been designed by Edward Check, and Arthur Oliver has done a nice job with the handsome costumes. Like the music, the combine medieval design with some modern fabrics and ideas. Frankly, the Middle Ages never looked so good.

I was sad to see the show was fairly sparsely attended and that the people who were there all seemed to hold the attitude that this was going to “be good for them”. That may indeed be the case, but Packer has also assembled a fine cast to entertain you. You may learn and be enlightened and challenged to think, but all those things can be entertaining too. Ultimately, this production of “King John” is great theatre. I encourage you to go.

King John runs in repertory through September 3 at the Founders’ Theatre at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA. The show runs three hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission. The night I attended there were a several families with children in attendance. With a little advance preparation, I don’t see why children 10 and older can’t see and enjoy this play with adult supervision. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353.

*For some unknown reason all the Shakespeare & Company publicity lists him as the third of three sons when I believe him to be the fourth of four.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005

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