January 17, 2002: Shakespeare, King John

RSC, Barbican Pit

A cast of twenty (two young actors alternating as the hapless young Arthur) does stunning justice to this problematic (as contrasted with “problem”) play of Shakespeare’s early years. Just how early is a subject of dispute — anywhere between 1592 and 1598, scholars say; and that is part, though certainly not all, of the problematic nature of the play. The last production of the play (to my know­ledge) was Deborah Warner’s, a decade or more ago, which I also saw in the Barbican Pit and which used numerous ladders flung up against the back wall as emblematic properties. Here, the scene is even more bare: only a wooden throne, painted in a kind of whitewash, was the sole property — except for several great banners on long poles, which were used quite brilliantly to simulate the contrary fortunes of battle. The director, Gregory Doran, whose work I don’t know, has put together a production with abundant energy and clear articul­ation, using the simple, four-square space to allow the play to speak for itself in its own terms.

The King John is Guy Henry (the Malvolio in the current RSC Twelfth Night), an extremely tall, gaunt personage with a fine voice and a nervous energy entirely at his command who gives us all he is worth in the service of as problem­atic and unattractive a hero as any that has come down the Shakespearean pike. The Life and Death of King John is the full title, though the “life” begins pretty late, when John has already become embroiled in conflict with his barons and with France, a kind of dramatic double whammy that soon does him in, with the material help of the poison administered by a scheming monk (there are no other kinds of monks in Shakespeare’s England, it seems).

Granted that in this small space we are almost on top of the actors, it is a pleasure to hear Shakespeare’s verse spoken with such feeling and vitality and such perfect diction, without the least hint of lifeless, “lite’ry” tones. And it’s a pleasure to see the play roll on at a constant near-breakneck pace and watch reversal after reversal until John receives his comeuppance. This is London theatre at its best.

In fact, the production is mounted so perspicuously that even as the action moved swiftly along I found the “leisure” to reflect on where the play might fall in Shakespeare’s rapidly developing canon. Scholars who scrutinize the verse (Frank Kermode, most recently) take the view that there are marks of the earlier, more formulaic author of the Henry VI plays but simultaneous indicators of the more individualized, psychically complex characters destined to emerge soon in such personages as Brutus (“Between the acting of a dreadful thing And its first motion all the interim Is like a phantasm or a hideous dream”). The precursor of those more self-aware, reflective characters is, of course, the Bastard in this play — not King John. His speech about seizing opportunity by the forelock (my metaphorical paraphrase) has the authentic ring of the Shakespearean era — but not the tragic hero that Brutus begins to epitomize. What an odd play, in fact — presenting the only instance I can think of in Shakespeare of the hero as com­ment­ator and observer. It’s a stretch, of course, to identify him as a hero; but John is certainly no such, though he is the eponymous protagonist all the same. Finally, John has no redeeming social virtues; he plays both ends against the middle like almost every other character in the play — Hubert of Angiers being only the more conspicuous of many like him. There is that wonderful sardon­ically comic moment when he is called upon to declare where his loyalties lie. Not a problem. They live with the King of England — whichever he turns out to be. And yet, and yet, the authentic Shakespeare shines through. Hubert, suborned by King John to kill young Arthur, whose birthright challenges John’s position —


JOHN                     Death.

HUBERT                        My Lord?

JOHN                                           A grave.

HUBERT                                                  Enough.


— finally cannot do it; Arthur’s ingenuous, eloquent appeal to Hubert’s humanity gets the better of his political opportunism. And then Arthur dies anyway, falling from the battlements, and his corpse lies on stage for a long moment while contrary forces continue to wrangle.

What a world. It’s Shakespeare’s perennial thematic artistry on view here (for all the play’s specific character as a transitional piece), showing us the depths of human feeling along with the heights of human opportunism and the ubiquitous contrariety of fortune. It’s no wonder this play, noted in the program as some­thing quite other than being a fixture of the repertory, is seldom performed: King John has nothing but his troubles — his “troublesome reign,” to cite part of the title of a source play — to recommend him to our interest. No complexities of character, no tragic depths, in contrast to the later (in my view) Richard II, who has both, and who shares with the great tragic heroes of the next century (Hamlet, perhaps, but assuredly Macbeth and King Lear) the initial and aesthetic quality that shifts to sympathy as he goes through the fire of self-acquisition. King John knows no more who he is as he writhes in his death agony than he does as he knights the aspiring bastard Falconbridge. “All is fortune,” as Malvolio, a moral look-alike, observes. It is a tribute to Shakespeare’s trans­cendent skills as a dramatist that he can make, out of materials as unprom­ising as this, an enthralling and gripping play about the incessant reversals of life.




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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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