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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
King John
by Lizzie Loveridge

Bell, book, and candle, shall not drive me back
When gold and silver becks me to come on
--- Bastard
 King John
Guy Henry as King John
(Photo: Jonathan Dockar-Drysdale)
I was going to start my review by saying how rare it is to see a production of King John but I see that my colleague Les Gutman has seen this history play of William Shakespeare's twice in a few years. My expectations were low, despite my affection for Guy Henry, who takes the eponymous role and is a brilliant comic actor, and my admiration for the work of Gregory Doran, the director. I expected a rather empty play similar to the production of Henry VIII that I had seen some years ago at the Royal Shakespeare Company, thin on plot, weak on history but strong on pageant. I was wrong.

King John is best known here by his reputation as Bad King John, mostly because he was the taxing monarch behind the Sheriff of Nottingham in the tales of Robin Hood and because he was forced by the barons to sign Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215. In fact, history says that his reputation may be undeserved, in so far as some of the taxation was to pay for his brother Richard I's, (known as Good King Richard to contrast with the other two Richards) he of the Coeur de Lion expeditions or Crusades into the Holy Land. In Gregory Doran's production they are almost no "good" characters and only Pandulph, the Cardinal and Papal representative (David Collings) is almost all evil.

Together Doran and Henry create a flippant King John, easily bored, winking at the crowd. Guy Henry is very tall and very thin, so has a naturally lanky appearance. Give him a black bob of a hairstyle reminiscent of Olive Oyl of Popeye fame, a small black goatee and dress him in long linen robes and his very presence is amusing. But he is also poignant, childlike in his desire to withdraw the order to murder his nephew. At one point his aggressive mother, Eleanor of Acquitaine (Alison Fiske) pushes the crown so hard on his head that it bends his ears over.

Guy Henry treads that narrow path between tragedy and comedy and Doran has inserted plenty of light wit into the production without it becoming a romp. There is universal groaning from France and her allies when Cardinal Pandulph announces finally that John has reconciled to Rome, this removing the excuse for France to be at war with England, and France were winning! As Arthur says that his mother will die of grief, John nods his head vigorously and grins. Sycophantic subjects slide along the floor on their knees to be the first to congratulate Henry III on his accession.

The production has its share of dark moments. Both Eleanor and Constance (Kelly Hunter) John's sister in law are gritty, ambitious women who wield their power on behalf of their sons. Alison Fiske, dressed in battle dress, chain mail, sword in hand is a ballsy Queen Mother. Constance, widow to Geoffrey, the eldest son of Henry II, allies with France in laying claim to the throne for her son Arthur (Jonathan Bailey/Jordan Lee Calvert). Constance rails and rants in a bitter and memorable performance but her son Arthur (Jonathan Bailey, the night I saw the play), gave an exceptionally mature performance as a youth who is a political pawn and pre-empts his fate by jumping from the battlements to his death. Who can forget David Colling's weasel-like, conniving Cardinal? My notes say that Shakespeare toned down the anti-Catholicism of the original, anonymous play, The Troublesome Reign of King John but this is hard to believe.

It is also play about King Richard's bastard son Philip Falconbridge, called the Bastard (Jo Stone-Fewings) but knighted by King John as Sir Richard Plantagenet. In Shakespeare's day illegitimacy reflected on the child, so often bastard was synonymous with villain but here the Bastard is more opportunist, allying himself with King John and at John's death becomes one of a number of powerful barons proclaiming John's son, King Henry III (Tom Harper). With Richard's crest on his arm with the bar sinister proclaiming his illegitimacy, the Bastard is ever present advancing his career. Jo Stone-Fewings finds interesting depth for this important role.

There is much waving of the Cross of Saint George in a flash forward to today's chanting Eng-er-land football supporters. Most of the battles are choreographed with flags to the sound of drums, cannon and neighing horses. John's second coronation (Why a second coronation?) is lit very brightly, starting with light breaking through wooden slats and then blinding us as the whole doorway is brightly lit and John enters in white ready to receive crown, orb and sceptre, again. I shall always remember John slumped on his throne, his crown slung over one corner of the back of the chair as he tried to blame others for Arthur's (presumed at that point) death. Gregory Doran's production is to be commended for keeping the audience's interest and Guy Henry's two sided portrait of this unpopular king is masterly. Another King John

King John
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Gregory Doran

Starring: Guy Henry
With: Alison Fiske, Victoria Duarri, Andrew Maude, Colin McCormack, Andrew James Storey, Jo Stone-Fewings, Joseph England, Angela Vale, Tom Harper, Jonathan Bailey/Jordan Lee Calvert, Kelly Hunter, Geoffrey Freshwater, John Hopkins, Trevor Martin, Drew Mulligan, David Mara, Elizabeth Hurran
Design: Stephen Brimson Lewis
Lighting Design: Tim Mitchell
Movement: Jack Murphy
Sound: Martin Slavin
Music Director: Roger Hellyer
Running time: Three hours with one interval
Box Office: 020 7638 8891
Booking to 19th February 2002
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 5th January performance at The Pit, Barbican Centre, Silk Street London EC2
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