Irony, satire, expediency, and double-dealing
are timeless Shakespearean political themes that seem especially
relevant today, as demonstrated by productions like the Royal
Shakespeare Company’s King John, Peter Hall’s Troilus
and Cressida, and Almeida Theatre's Coriolanus.
King John, which opens the summer festival
season at Stratford-upon-Avon, presents
a man in the top job who may seem familiar. His claim to
the position is shaky, and he by turns is inept, indecisive, changeable,
and to some, as interpreted by Guy Henry, a figure of fun.
Directed by Gregory Doran in the Elizabethan-inspired Swan Theatre,
John in his first appearance, heralded by fanfares, scurries onto
the scene late, not wearing but clutching his crown, and forgets
the name of the French ambassador he is meeting. It
is a play that views politics with cynicism.
John’s mother, Elinor of Aquitaine (think Katharine
Hepburn in “The Lion in Winter”) favors young Arthur, the rightful
heir to the throne as he is the son of John’s deceased older brother.
Warring against John, Elinor enlists the aid of the French, who
then betray her, and turn Arthur over to John’s henchman, Hubert
(Trevor Cooper). Cardinal Pandulph (David Collings) excommunicates
John, who first blasts the Pope but then retracts, while Pandolph
in turn rescinds his order and crowns John as rightful king in
a second coronation.
In contrast to the hypocritical churchman
and the kings of England and France is the outspoken Faulconbridge,
bastard son of deceased King Richard the Lionhearted. If
John is an anti-hero, Faulconbridge is as close as the play comes
to a hero. A realist, it is Faulconbridge whose soliloquy
recognizes that everyone is motivated by “commodity,” that is,
expedience, that turns the rulers from “a resolved and honorable
war/ To a most base and vile-concluded peace.” He includes himself:
“Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee.”
An early play (c. 1594-95), King John
is filled with long, rhetorical speeches in which the playwright
demonstrates that he can out-Marlowe Marlowe’s mighty line.
But Faulconbridge, or the Bastard, as he is termed in Shakespeare’s
designation, has the truly unique voice Shakespeare was finding
for individual characters. It cuts through the rhetoric
of the others, and is the Bastard’s alone, like the speeches of
Emilia in Othello or Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.
Jo Stone-Fewing makes the most of the soliloquies, combining
their cynicism with honesty, and brings out the wit in this singular
character, who takes on and mocks the pompous, but remains loyal
to the king no matter how abhorrent his orders
There are two outstanding women’s
roles, conceived by Shakespeare as sympathetic in contrast
to the hypocritical males. Alison Fiske is Elinor, one of
Shakespeare’s strong women who revels in conflict, blasting the
King of France for deserting her cause, or attacking the turn-coat
cardinal who delights in his own scheming. Kelly Hunter portrays
Constance, mother of young Arthur and a role favored by generations
of actresses because of its emotion, especially the lament for
her dead son.