When the Royal Shakespeare Company presented its mammoth season of history plays, King John was omitted. True, it didn't fit into the neat chronological order of the other eight, but there's a good deal of richness in this play that makes it puzzling why it's so rarely performed. Indeed, this is the RSC's first production of it for 12 years, and only the fifth since the war.
It's doubtful whether any of those previous outings would have quite emphasised the comedy within the play as Gregory Doran's production here does. Perhaps, that tack's inevitable with such an accomplished comic actor as Guy Henry in the title role. Right from the outset, when seated on the throne, his John is all smirks and grimaces, stretching out his long legs like a malevolent spider. Anyone who recalls the Robin Hood film from the 1930s will recognise this performance as the spiritual descendent of Claude Rains' very camp Prince John.
The scene between Hubert and John's young nephew Arthur is one of the play's most notable, but not in this production: Doran is much more interested in the political ramifications of the text than the sentimentality. There's a deliciously unctuous performance from David Collings as the Pandulph, the papal legate. With his soft voice, soapy smile and glance of lascivious admiration for the dauphin, his Pandulph is the very quintessence of duplicity and degeneracy.
But the juiciest part in the play is that of Arthur's mother, Constance. It's a role that contains no shortage of opportunity for over-playing, but here Kelly Hunter treads the fine line between being vengeful and being tragic without ever going over the top. Again though, Doran seems to treat this display of raw emotion as secondary to the realpolitik.
The strangest character is that of the Bastard. Noble of birth, but with the vigorous language of the ordinary folk, he would have been a hero to the Shakespearean audience. Jo Stone Fewings is a robust Bastard, more plebian than patrician
This production wrings every drop of comedy out of Shakespeare's text and is particularly strong on the double-dealing. But by contrast, it perhaps loses something of the story's inherent emotional pull. The death of Arthur, for instance, is almost glossed over.
But the way that allegiances and alliances are constantly shifting has a satisfyingly modern feel. There's a lot to enjoy in this King John.
- Maxwell Cooter
Note: This review dates from April 2001 and the production's original run in Stratford-upon-Avon.
The idea of a "neglected masterpiece" is always a tempting one, but you need only to see King John to understand why it's so rarely performed. The play is flawed but, as well as having the proverbial "good moments and dreadful quarters-of-an-hour", this production provides some moving scenes and powerful performances. Shakespeare tries to pack far too much plot into the first third of the play, and the result is sometimes confusing and superficial. But in the later scenes, when he takes his time to develop character and situation, we recognise the master at work.
Guy Henry, who plays King John, is a fine actor able to move us to laughter or tears in a moment. In the BBC Shakespeare series, John was played by Leonard Rossiter and Henry's talent for comedy enables him to bring some of the same quirky idiosyncrasy to this faintly ridiculous king.
John is a weak man who struggles to hold on to his crown against the opposition of the French, the Church, the English barons and rival claimants in his own family. Morality is on hold as everyone struggles to win some personal political advantage at any cost. Unlike his great cycle of 15th-century histories current playing in London, in King John Shakespeare shows little faith in or respect for monarchy.
The dramatic core of the play comes when John's servant Hubert, beautifully played by Trevor Cooper, attempts to murder the king's nephew, Arthur. This young boy (a role shared by Benjamin Darlington and Joshua McGuire) is the largest part Shakespeare ever wrote for a child. Director Gregory Doran makes this scene all the more moving by avoiding any hint of sentimentality, as Arthur's innocence disarms his would-be murderer.
Arthur's ruthlessly ambitious mother, Constance, should be the moral centre of the play, but Kelly Hunter reduces this potentially tragic woman of sorrows to the sister-in-law from hell. In a strong cast, two other actors shine. The hugely experienced David Collings oozes unction and duplicity as the Pope's legate, Cardinal Pandulph. The demanding role of the Dauphin is, surprisingly, John Hopkins's first work in the theatre; he shows an assurance and confidence which are not misplaced.
For once, director Doran's notorious penchant for spectacle is kept under strict control. A handful of flags, a simple throne and some spendid music by Corin Buckeridge are all he allows himself to work with and, frankly, he needs more.
This play cannot be recommended to the occasional visitor to Shakespeare. But for aficionados, especially those who've never seen King John, it's well worth a visit. This is a sound and solid production with occasional flashes of brilliance. It's not an easy play to watch, but to the devoted student of Shakespeare, in the end, it repays the effort.
King John opened at The Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon, 28 March 2001 (previews from 21 March) and continues there in repertory until 13 October 2001.