A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
King John

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.