London has not seen a professional King John in over ten years. In fact, many people associate King John more with Robin Hood than anything by the Bard. By clicking on the reviews section of ‘King John’ on this site, you’ll see only one other entry, an amateur performance, which shows you how rarely this play is performed.
However this year, there are three top productions; an Armenian version, as part of the Globe to Globe World Shakespeare Festival to accompany the Olympics, another as part of the RSC’s 2012 season, and finally the King John at the Union Theatre, Southwark, which runs until February 11. The Union's choice is a brave one, considering the commercial realities of staging any sort of play. Will people pay to see a rarely done play with which they are unfamiliar? Such a consideration made the Globe swap their original plan to do King John as part of their 2010 ‘Kings and Rogues’ season with a safer and more commercially attractive Macbeth.
Watching the Union’s production baffles as to why other theatre companies don’t try it, as the Union Theatre’s production is superb in every possible way and director Phil Willmott and producer Claire Evans succeed in putting on a great production. The acting is sublime, the use of music and lighting clever and original, and all the different elements of the play are well considered. Some of the text is cut, but this tightens up the story, making it more intriguing and easier to follow for an unfamiliar audience.
The play focuses on one of the many English-French wars. King John is looking to defend England (and its territories in France) from the French King Phillip (the Bastard) who wants to unseat John and give the throne to Arthur, the son of John’s older brother, who has been living with Phillip alongside his scheming mother Constance.
Nicholas Osmond in the title role portrays John as weak, vain and effeminate, full of grandiose ambition and resentment. Essentially his portrayal (and indeed the text) provides a good guide on how not to rule a kingdom. In fact, Osmond’s portrayal seems inspired more by the depictions of John in any number of Robin Hood films (yes, including the Disney one) than Shakespeare. His weakness had some impressive touches, but Willmott overdoes it when trying to portray John as overly influenced by his mother Eleanor.
His opponent, Phillip the Bastard (Damian Quinn) is played as quiet, statesman-like, even bland, but with ambition and authority. His portrayal is overpowered by that of Samantha Lawson’s powerful Constance, who is fanatical in her hatred of England. She dominates the stage whenever she is on, though at times the fierce portrayal becomes overwhelming.
Much of the action revolves around the forced marriage between John’s niece Blanche (sweetly played by Daisy May) and Phillip’s son, Lewis the Dauphin (James Corscadden). The Dauphin’s role grows in the play as he succeeds his father in leading France in its war with England. He becomes a typical Shakespearian war leader and his confidence grows in the production from a young pawn in the first half to confident General-King in the second.
There is more to the play than just the to-ing and fro-ing of two kings at war. Much of the political intrigue comes from John’s court where the nobles are unhappy with him and plan to revolt. This happens after they find Arthur's corpse, whom they believed John murdered, but in fact died accidentally in an escape attempt from prison. The intrigue is further complicated by interference from Rome.
The all-powerful Cardinal Pandulph (a very convincing Michael Hayes) is a skilled politician, and he uses his Papal power first to ex-communicate John, allowing France to make war on England and then to stop the war. He is resisted by the Dauphin who makes some relevant and modern points about the role of the church in government affairs, and considering King John was written only fifty years after the Reformation, he makes some interesting comments about the notion of monarchy. The play ends with John dying, a fragile peace notionally restored and John’s unwilling son, Henry, taking the crown, looking into the future.
The impressively large cast gives some sense of scale of the battle between two empires on a relatively small stage, and the actors move intelligently around the performance area, which is difficult to do with sometimes twenty actors performing at once. Special effects are completed with skill using smoke machines, clever lighting (Jason Meininger) and an impressive score, with Gregorian monk chanting providing much of the backing sound, skillfully designed and implemented by Giles Thomas.
King John is a great text and does a better job than most other histories in mixing political intrigue with tragedy and comedy, especially in one of the most complex periods of English history. The play shifts in styles and pace very well, matching the different themes of the text, with each bit delivered in an interesting way, without having to revert to the tired formats of the various Henrys and Richards which have been done before.
In terms of production, there are two scenes that demonstrate Willmott’s creativity and innovation. The first is the confrontation at the gates of Angiers. As both kings make their cases why the town should welcome them as their rulers, stereotypical nationalistic music accompanies their speeches and adds some wonderful humour. Secondly, the argument between John’s servant Hubert (John Last) and the noble Faulconbridge (Leonard Sillevis) upon discovering Arthur’s body is magnificent. With whistling sound effects, the stage is pitch black, except for two torches carried by the actors, which occasionally illuminate the actors’ faces. Original moments like these make such a difference, and require no major resources. They help break up the epic nature of the play and add intimacy and personal struggle.
Not all is perfect though. Overall the costumes are well thought out, but there is a mismatch at points, with traditional medieval clothes for most of the play, mixed in with balaclavas, trench coats and modern garb which look more like the new Coriolanus than King John. These different styles do not seem to follow any particular pattern, and it is a shame as with such a large cast, some uniformity by nation would have helped differentiate who was on whose side. But the inconsistency is offset by costume leader Natasha Mackmurdie’s costumes for the lead roles. She provides a surreal moment in which John is surrounded by courtiers all wearing stag-masks with antlers.
The play ends on an odd note, with the dying King John surrounded by the silent ghosts of Eleanor, Phillip, Constance and Arthur dancing and freezing as he delivers his last lines with his son, the future King Henry III. Considering how literal and historical the play is up to this point, such moments of occult feel at odds with the rest of the play.
But the above are minor annoyances, and the play is well worth the £18 ticket. Indeed, many of the people I spoke to attended the performance because it was such a rare production. The Union’s King John is intelligently staged and performed and shows that Shakespeare productions do not have to be all Much Ados and Othellos and Hamlets to be good.