The Show Must Go Online: King John

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King John

After two weeks of romance and flights of fancy, The Show Must Go Online was back in historical territory once more, with King John following hot on the heels of a truly memorable production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It’s a rarely performed play; I’ve only seen it once before, in a slightly odd production that disjointedly combined traditional dress and what looked like CCTV footage (though with a strong central performance from Jamie Ballard). I was desperate to see the recent RSC production with its 60s setting and a woman playing King John, but first the performance schedule and then coronavirus managed to stop me in my tracks – thankfully there are still hopes for a cinema screening and DVD release, so I should get to see it at some point!

The play was introduced by academic, lecturer & writer Gemma Miller, summing it up as being about illegitimacy, succession, and what it means to be English (in the wider European context). It’s interesting to note that it defies the conventions of the other history plays; for one thing, it’s an outlier that doesn’t fit into the main cycle, there’s no big climactic battle (see Bosworth, Agincourt, etc.), the title character is slightly underwhelming as a ‘hero’ – in fact, it actually turns out more like an ensemble play. It also features some big female roles, such as Queen Constance (played by Sarah Siddons back in the late 18th century). Miller believes King John “interrogates ideas of truth and fact”, showing how malleable and open to interpretation these concepts can be in certain hands.

King John cast

We go straight into the central dilemma at the very beginning: John is not the undisputed King of England – in fact, King Philip of France believes so strongly that John’s nephew Arthur has a weightier claim to the throne that he is threatening war unless John abdicates. He is briefly distracted from this when asked to preside over an inheritance dispute between Robert Faulconbridge and Philip the Bastard; it turns out, however, that Philip is in fact the illegitimate son of the late Richard the Lionheart (Queen Elinor recognising the resemblance), and so duly gives up his claim when King John knights him under the name Richard. Over in France, the English-ruled town of Angers is besieged by French troops and threatened with attack unless they too favour Arthur for the English throne – a war of words ensues when the English contingent arrives, but this only leads to physical skirmishes when the citizens of Angers resolve to remain neutral. This neutrality seems to be contagious, as no outright victor emerges from the battle, despite each side trying to claim the win. Will this lead to more fighting, or does the Bastard have something up his sleeve..?

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Herbert Beerbohm Tree as King John in King John by William Shakespeare
Charles Buchel

The game this week was Twister! No, not that Twister (i.e. the social distancer’s nightmare) – in this scenario it was spotting events that veered in unexpected directions. Thankfully one biggie came before I got too sucked in to keep track: Philip the Bastard’s change in fortunes, of course! A classic scrap over inheritance, which King John has to make the final decision about (we all know how decision-making went for Richard II…), suddenly stopped in its tracks when the Queen Mother spots a family likeness in the Bastard and they manage to work out that he is actually related to them rather than being a Faulconbridge. Unsurprisingly, he drops the dispute in favour of becoming a knight and choosing to serve the king.

The average person is likely to know of King John either as the thumb-sucking prince in Disney’s Robin Hood or as the monarch under whom Magna Carta came into existence – or possibly both of these things. However, Shakespeare’s play (more fully entitled The Life and Death of King John) skips over these stages in his life entirely, instead focusing on other events, as well as the tumultuous end to his reign. The history play equivalent of going beyond the ‘happily ever after’ in a rom-com – only with more threats of war and infanticide…

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There were some more brilliant choices as far as the cast was concerned; at this point you probably won’t be surprised at my delight when I saw a woman would be playing the titular role! Hannah Young balanced the king’s wilfulness & ruthlessness with hints of vulnerability, even generating some sympathy as the monarch lay dying. The scene between Karim Hadaya & Niamh James as Hubert & Arthur was incredibly touching, as the young Plantagenet renders the hitman incapable of killing him – and James handled the innovative method of depicting Arthur’s jump from the ramparts absolutely superbly. Noteworthy performances, too, from Charlie Clee (Philip the Bastard) and Julia Giolzetti (Queen Constance).

As seems to be the case most weeks, TSMGO have really worked their magic on King John; having only seen it once (several years ago) I was definitely more willing to give it another go, but the clarity of their productions always manage to enhance any potential relevance and allow for greater understanding of the text.

Next week: The Merchant of Venice


King John was broadcast on 10 June 2020. The Show Must Go Online runs every Wednesday at 7pm and is also available to watch afterwards. Become a Patron at The Show Must Go Online’s Patreon page.

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