The early part of the last millennium was a tough time to be King of England, or indeed a relative of the King. In those days, disputes over who had the right to wear the crown were bloody affairs, and support for a contender for the throne often came from the Kings of France, and led inevitably to threats of conflict, or war between the two kingdoms. Those situations and the associated themes of greed and self-interest make for good theatre and no doubt Shakespeare had the same thought as he turned his attention to those bloody and turbulent days.
Written in 1595 or 1596, Shakespeare's 'King John' (or 'The Life and Death of King John', to give it its full title) has been lingering in something akin to obscurity for some time. Though it was apparently popular in Victorian times it has largely been overlooked in the past century, and productions of this play are few and far between. That fact alone makes ample recommendation for seeing any new version. But there's a bonus with this production, because in the skilful hands of director Phil Willmott and a hugely talented cast who obviously were undaunted by the task of bringing the play out of the shadows, it turns out to be both fascinating and gripping, with a good dollop of humour thrown in for good measure.
The play starts after King John has usurped the throne of England. By rights, Prince Arthur should have inherited the kingdom on the death of his father, Richard the Lionheart. But John grabbed the crown, and Arthur and his mother Constance are protected by France. Now, a French ambassador turns up and tells John to hand over the crown or there will be war. While John is mulling this over, he has to arbitrate between two brothers who are in dispute about their father's lands. This introduces us to the character of Philip the Bastard, the Lionheart's illegitimate son. Philip in a sense acts as narrator, but he is also a rabble-rouser. The action quickly moves to France where the twists and turns of the plot include the arrival of a papal legate introducing another dimension into the political turmoil.
One of the biggest questions with 'King John' is whether the King is a buffoon or merely incompetent. I do not think John can be portrayed as a complete fool because he had the political skills to acquire the throne in the first place. And Nicholas Osmond seems to agree with that in his playing of the role, though he does illustrate other qualities in the king, such as petulance and a streak of childishness which both seem more than appropriate. Albert de Jongh's Arthur cowers rather too much during the initial stages when he is supposedly terrified of both the French King and John, but adapts very convincingly after he is captured by the English and has to talk his way out of being blinded by a blow torch!
Arthur's mother, Constance, can be something of an irritation, but not in the capable hands of Samantha Lawson who produces a truly magnetic performance after her son has been captured by the English and she becomes totally distraught. Rikki Lawton invests the character of Philip the Bastard with an almost boundless energy and vitality which, like the events, borders (deliberately) on the absurd. But he skilfully contrasts that with a more serious and sedate response as darker events occur later in the play. The support from the rest of the cast – too numerous to mention individually – is, quite simply, excellent.
Phil Willmott's superb direction encapsulates atmospheric music augmented by singing and humming from the cast, and simplicity in design which matches the bleak austerity of the living conditions of the times.
Shakespeare may not have accurately related all the historical facts, but he did capture the essence of the times, describing greedy, self-centred characters who become ridiculous as their stances shift with the political winds. 'King John' has humour, tension, intrigue and sadness – a suitable cocktail for an evening's entertainment. The play certainly deserves to be seen more often, but it is the sheer quality of this production that makes Shakespeare's work shine.