Tuesday 5th – Saturday 9th December 2006
The three things that everyone knows about King John are not in this play. Robin Hood, the Magna Carta and the losing of the Crown Jewels in the Wash are not mentioned.
Robin Hood’s absence is puzzling, though that of the Magna Carta is less so. Until the Victorian era, the Magna Carta was something of a footnote in history – the document does after all merely protect the rights of the Norman barons. Only with the Gothic Revival in the 19th century did romantics come to see it as the first stirrings of English democracy. Shakespeare almost certainly did not.
There is reference in the text to some sort of disaster in the Wash – that boggy area between Lincolnshire and Norfolk that would have been much larger in John’s (and Shakespeare’s) day than nowadays. However, no mention of any jewels is made: to Shakespeare’s mind the human cost was undoubtedly more important.
So what is the play about? I think it’s about three things really. The status of England in Europe, the relationship between the Church in England and the authority of Rome (both very pressing questions when the play was written) – and, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, the spine-tingling irony of a bad man dying well: the very essence of tragedy, in fact.
When William the Conqueror became King of England in 1066, he did not give up his possessions in Normandy. Although this land came technically under the French crown, the French king was seldom in a position to contest the matter. When Henry II married into the rich provinces of Aquitaine, on the west coast of France, England acquired an “empire” stretching from the Scottish borders to the Pyrenees.
John lost most of this and has been considered a “weak” king ever since. This would have had added resonance for Shakespeare’s audience: within living memory, Mary I had lost Calais, England’s last possession in mainland France.
King John’s defiance of the Pope would also have had great resonance with the audience. Henry VIII’s break with Rome was legitimised by leading clerics, often with reference to John’s clash with Innocent III to show that the Pope has never had real authority in England. The religious strife that followed in the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I would have been very fresh in people’s minds.
Opinion has long been divided over the precise authorship of the play in the form in which we currently have it. Some parts – whole characters even – don’t really seem to belong at all. Austria serves only as an easy target for The Bastard’s ready wit, which is unnecessary and anyway, Austria really wasn’t responsible for Richard Lionheart’s death as The Bastard claims. So I cut Austria. Likewise Essex and Bigot and the Count of Melun – more mechanicals whose lines can be easily given to others, thereby trimming the fat a little.
As is usually the case with Shakespeare, the history is telescoped and confused. Even so, the historical meat of the play is reasonably accurate: we really did have a “King Louis” ruling, briefly, in London. England really was put inder a “General Interdict” by Pope Innocent III, temporarily banning the public celebration of the Mass and other sacraments.
King John’s character seems to take a while to warm up, not really hitting his stride until the third act. This is partially made up for by Philip The Bastard, a wonderful character despite his tendency to drift between serious narration, comic relief and profound observation.
Uncut, “King John” is a strange, flawed play with some brilliant flashes but no obvious centre. I hope what I’ve done is made it both intelligible and consistent without dumbing down.
|King John||Pulak Sahay|
|Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine||Jenny Carr|
|Prince Henry||Jake Atkinson|
|Lady Blanche of Spain||Rebecca Morgan|
|Earl of Pembroke||David Hartshorne|
|Earl of Salisbury||Raymond Baggaley|
|Robert Faulconbridge||Alistair Carr|
|Philip the Bastard||John Bedford|
|Lady Faulconbridge||Sally Mitcham|
|A Herald||Jon Adams|
|A Messenger||Jeremy Muldowney|
|An Executioner||Matt Simpson|
|King Philip II of France||Lee Maloney|
|Lewis the Dauphin||Dermot Hill|
|Cardinal Pandulph||Jamie Searle|
|Arthur, Duke of Brittainy||Dominic Houlison|
|A Herald||Hugh Dower|
|A Messenger||Keith Pringle|
|Citizen of Angiers||Voice of Frank Brogan|
|Stage Manager||Kit Bird|
|Costume Designer||Zoe Groves|
|Digital Imagery||Keith Pringle|
|Poster Design||John Sharpe|
|Cast Liaison||John Hasselgreen|
|Signed Decription||Steve Conlon|
|Audio Description Tape||Raymond Baggeley|
|Front of House||Members of the Project|