For BillyBard buffs, a brave outing in King John
Zoom Spot : The final production of Bard on the Beach for 2012 is Shakespeare’s seldom performed King John. The reason it is seldom performed is there’s so little performance in it. It presents like a dressed-up radio play because there’s such minimal action in it. But for lovers of Shakespeare’s skill with the language and evocative speech-making, this performance will not disappoint. One of the more famous ejaculations in the play is Philip the Bastard’s call to the mayor of Angiers : “Zounds, I was never so bethumped with words.” So if a good bethumping by BB’s magic with English is your preference – as it is mine – you will find much to recommend in this production.
Plot roadmap : Blood lusts, conspiracies, revenge and violence are never far from the tip of Billy Bard’s quill. And quite so in King John. Allegiances among royals readily give way to power plots, intrigue, and loyalty-reversals. As if in 13th century Europe the monarchs and their fellow-travelers are all playing a deadly ethics game of Nicky Nicky Nine Doors : clatter-&-chase, not sure why or why not, just do.
The play’s chief issue is successorship after the death of Richard I in France. As he fades from view, Richard the Lion Heart names the youngest Plantagenet, John, as the new king of England and all its duchies. Sister-in-law Constance is enraged. Her pubescent, pre-teen son Arthur she believes should rightfully have been chosen as “heir apparent”. Her late husband Geoffrey would have been next in line ahead of John, had he not died. Thus in her matrix of lineage rights, Geoffrey’s eldest son should earn the crown first. Constance enlists the aid of French King Philip to have Arthur installed as king to supplant John “the usurper”.
As the play opens, we learn that Richard Coeur-de-lion, otherwise childless, had a son after a horizontal furlough with Lady Faulconbridge a couple of decades back. This 20-something has already been introduced : Philip the Bastard. As the play begins he forsakes his claims as heir to that family and is knighted instead by John to be a Plantaganet officially. He joins John’s entourage bearing dad’s Christian name Richard (but never quite shakes the Philip-the-Bastard moniker). Quite inexplicably Bastard becomes John’s consigliere for the war with France that is assured by the nasty Arthur business : Lady Constance is nothing if not tenacious.
As part of the evolving intrigue, Queen Mother Elinor likes the power game : she pushes John to promote himself against the claims of her grandson Arthur. They go to France, with troops, to challenge King Philip.
Then quite astonishingly the initial set-to with France over Arthur and the throne ends – abruptly – with a hastily-brokered marriage between the French dauphin Lewis and an English cousin, Spain’s Lady Blanch –also the customary plump dowry and conferral of rights over five provinces to Lewis, of course. France and England embrace each other, lit.-&-fig.
As with all the other Bard productions this summer, these scenes reveal a leitmotif viz. “property”, a.k.a. “commodity”. Another of course is “power” – raw physical violent political power as well as personal power. No common moral code guides any of these folks, mostly expediency. Bastard refers to “…tickling Commodity / Commodity, the bias of the world”. He denounces money, land and wealth only for their not having yet visited his doorstep. And when it comes to a choice between Rome or mammon, he’s clear that ”Bell, book and candle shall not drive me back /
When gold and silver becks me to come on.”
But the peace thru marriage is brief. Straightaway WS introduces a kind of deus ex machina sub-plot. When challenged, John makes it clear to the Pope’s emissary Cardinal Pandulph that “no Italian priest shall tithe or toll in our dominions”. Pandulph promptly excommunicates him. This bit of plotline propels the story past being a little family spat about throne successorhip among the Plantagenets. Now there’s grounds for a holy war between Catholic France and England’s arrogant heretics. And it comes. Quickly and ferociously.
When the smoke finally clears, young Arthur has died from suicide; thinking he had already been killed by John, his mother Constance earlier suicides too, a nice morbid Freudian touch; Queen Mummy Elinor has also joined the worms and ashes; King John seeks sanctuary from the monks whose wealth he’s plundered, is poisoned, and succumbs to corrupted guts; a peace is brokered with France and Rome so John’s son Prince Henry assumes the throne with England safely back in the Vatican habit.
What works, what not-so-much : To the latter first. As a stage play, all of this is like today’s social media outputs – words chasing words chasing words without much connection to anything *real*. No swordfights, no bodies litter the stage, no Banquo ghosts : fundamentally we are asked to like King John for its dialogue and abstractions about kingly and papal power and the conflicts that family ties bring when status and prestige and the perqs of privilege are involved. Personally I found the extensive verbal jousting extremely engaging to listen to. But it helped having read the script twice before seeing it acted out.
Mefears the play would have been quite dubious an enjoyment had it been performed on the Bard mainstage. Kudos to the company for choosing instead the intimate studio stage venue which is “¾ round”, the audience forming a horseshoe around the actors' floor.
Not much set to speak of except a scaffolding at the north end of the stage, but projection designer Jamie Nesbitt’s screens with various pen-&-ink scenes shot onto them showing ships in the English Channel, troops amassing, and garden leaves dancing in the wind were a stroke. To match his excellence in Macbeth, sound designer Murray Price created evocative fronds of folk music featuring rich cellos and violins accompanied by medieval thumps to great advantage.
Good rich clothing ensembles for the nobles by costume designer Barbara Clayden, and solid no-nonsense fighting gear for the knights, good monks, good thugs.
Script & acting kudos : BB’s best lines are produced for Bastard and Constance, I say. Bastard’s asides to the audience marking the hypocrisies of the various characters in the play, himself included, are deliciously wrought off the pen. Aslam Husain fought hard to give them their weight and due, but he needed more timbre in his voice. He did hit the irony bits nicely, much to the crowd's delight. Constance by Amber Lewis had choice speeches advancing son Arthur’s cause so vainly. She did so passionately, viscerally, peremptorily, particularly the speech to Salisbury (Ashley Wright, who had once again the best enunciation and voice projection). Lewis’s pre-suicide speech lamenting the loss of Arthur literally brought tears to my eyes that lasted some time after the words quit my ears.
As John, Scott Bellis had the toughest assignment by far because of his near omnipresence on stage. Most of the night his excellent actor skills were, however, compromised for me by his odd tendency to want to Shout! his dialogue, even on his death throne when his insides were being wretched up. (Constance and Bastard are also infected by shout-a-philia, but to lesser degree.) John’s speech blaming Hubert for plotting Arthur’s apparent death instead of his kingly self was, however, brilliant in delivery.
On the audiometer, by comparison, Todd Thomson showed wonderful voice modulation in both his roles : as Hubert, chamberlain to King John, and as mayor of Angiers when he addressed the kings’ assemblages from the parapet. Hubert’s exchange with Arthur (gamely done by Lucas Gustafson) was poignant, but not nearly so much as Hubert finding Arthur’s crumpled body on the rocks. For the second time in the evening tears welled up hot in my eyes.
Given the studio stage venue, Dean Paul Gibson’s direction and blocking of cast were capable, interesting, and betimes very imaginative – as in the “circle dance” motif of the two kings just before King Philip (Neil Maffin) chose the Pope + war over his separate peace with John so recently won. Deft work by Maffin throughout.
The best scene of the night by far was Arthur’s suicide off the scaffolding into the arms of the nobles who then tossed and flipped him, gently, to the voice-over of Arthur’s last words as he tumbled gently in their hands down to earth. Just terrific theatre ! And including the rest of the noble entourage downstage to witness this action was inspired and touching, particularly Constance’s final glance at her boy.
[P.S. I mentioned to my wife that Patti Allan (Queen Elinor) once again – as she did as Miss Quickly in Wives – has mastered stage business in the studio environment : sheer unmitigated delight to watch the way she moves, even when in a minor role.]
King John is not everyone’s cup of wine nor blood due to its deficiencies as stage drama. But for WS aficionados it is a must see because it so seldom is. That’s reason enough to go witness a company that delivers well the faulty product BillyB gave them to work with, but one with some bits of dialogue as good as anything he produced in his more popular and profound scripts.