Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: Michael Best
Not Peer Reviewed

King John: Performance History

132The twenty-first century

Coming in the last decade of the twentieth century, Phillips's production found an approach that may explain why King John has been more frequently performed in the early years of the twenty-first. Writing in the New York Times, Ben Brantley commented that "'King John' . . . has vital resonance for an age that often sees its politicians less as monsters than mediocrities, distanced from greatness by all-too-pedestrian frailties." The Edwardian setting put the play in the period when Ibsen and Shaw were using the stage as a way of exploring social issues; King John is certainly amenable to a treatment that makes it more a "problem" play of this kind than a history play dealing with far-off times. (The whole question of the play's genre is dealt with in more detail in the [[link]] General Introduction).

133In the first decade of the millennium, there has been a flurry of productions in both the UK and North America. Settings for the play varied from medieval to modern, but all, in one way or another, presented the play as a statement on current politics, and many realized the potential for darkly comic moments in the play.

134Michael Billington reviewing two separate productions in the UK emphasized the political power of the play as highlighted by both directors:

What startles one is the play's modernity: it accords with our own scepticism about power politics. But, far from being a patriotic battle-hymn, the play is, especially in the first half, a corrosively satiric study of sordid power struggles. (On Gregory Doran's 2001 production, Guardian, 8 March, 2001)

This is a cynic's view of medieval English history in which virtually no man is a good as his word. . . . There's a great moment when the Bastard announces that warlike John is ready "to feast upon whole thousands of the French" and we suddenly see the frail, sickening king tottering about in his nightgown. (On 2006 Josie Rourke's 2006 version Theatre Record, 26 August, 2006)

135In a response that is almost universal in recent years, again reviewers were struck by the play's relevance to current events:

This is a world beset by a crisis of authority, in which neither name nor might nor realpolitik nor endorsement by the church confers absolute legitimacy, or "right". . . . The parallels with our own disordered times are plain for all to see -- and it's hard not to think of the carnage in the Middle East on hearing Tamsin Greig's beautifully understated Constance deliver her heartbroken lament for her lost Arthur. (Dominic Cavendish, Daily Telegraph, 7 June, 2006)

136In Canada and the US, directors continued to set the play in a not-quite-modern period. Antoni Cimolino (Stratford, Ontario) and John Sipes (Ashland, Oregon) both set the play in a context that made clear the proximity of Word War I: Sipes projected film footage on the back wall and floor of the stage during scene transitions, and Cimolino set the play in the years just before WWI. Audiences were invited to see the political analysis in the play as a comment on current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: Cimolino's staging of the battles was graphic, as "The carnage of the battlefield suddenly bursts into obscene view and the litter of dead bodies is like a scene out of Goya" (Jamie Portman, Canwest News, 24 August, 2004). Sipes emphasized the seemingly unending cycle of war by making Prince Henry a young man rather than a child, and introducing him much earlier in the play than the text indicates -- he acted as the Messenger in bringing news of the battle against the French. Thus, when he is finally crowned, there is a clear suggestion that he is as much involved in political self-interest as other characters in the play, and offers no comfortable sense of a potentially more compassionate world to follow.


As a "barometer of the time" (Bates, quoted at the beginning of this essay), productions of King John offer a remarkable insight into changing fashions in the world of theater. King John has been used as a vehicle for the expression of patriotism, and of bitter anti-war sentiment; it has been staged in costumes that expressed high eighteenth century fashion, minutely accurate early medieval style, Victorian, Edwardian, and modern dress; stage settings have varied from minimalist to elaborate. It has been the vehicle for major actors, both male and female. The variations created by Shakespeare's experiments in language, from Constance's elaborate rhetorical flourishes to the earthy colloquialism of the Bastard have resulted in deep cuts to the play for widely differing reasons as tastes have changed. The representative productions discussed here act both as a window and a reflection: each provides a window into the tastes and ideological preoccupations of the period in which King John was staged; at the same time, each illuminates Shakespeare's text as it emphasizes different qualities of the play, and as the setting and stage business reveal ways of understanding details of the characters and dialogue. Over time there has been a general agreement that King John is an uneven play, but just which parts of it should be omitted for the sake of a unity of vision varies widely. It has universally been seen as an intensely political play (though just what the politics add up to is contested); the characters of the Bastard and Constance especially have attracted brilliant actors (though John himself is seen as a challenge to interpret); and it unquestionably has some superb scenes in John's temptation/manipulation of Hubert, and the scene of Arthur's escape from blinding (but some are seen as awkward or wordy). The history of King John in performance suggests that it is a kind of bracketed play: good (but uneven), and stimulating (but it needs some help from the production to pull it off).