King John is not amused.
Beginning with struggles for power between kings, churches, and individuals, and continuing through war, revenge, and eventual murder, King John is one of Shakespeare's most revealing history plays. Set during the period when the nobles were changing the face of English government and forcing the king to sign the Magna Carta, this intriguing and rarely-produced play is one you won't want to miss.
King John, son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, is threatened with war by the King of France, who claims that John's nephew Arthur is the true heir to the English throne. On the advice of his brother's bastard son Philip Faulconbridge, John instead proposes a marriage between his niece Blanche and the dauphin. Louis agrees, and it seems as if war will be averted – until Cardinal Pandolf arrives straight from the Pope, threatening to excommunicate King John for nominating a archbishop without the papacy's blessing. Louis, as a true Catholic king, must fight in the Pope's name, bringing the war both monarchs hoped to avoid with the recent marriage.
This is one of the most infrequently performed plays in Shakespeare's repertoire, and to be honest, that's not much of a surprise. King John is long and speechy, even by Shakespeare standards, and once you get out of the royal family many of the characters are fairly interchangeable. But that said, there are some interesting things about the play that make it worth seeing at least once. For example, I do believe this is one of the only Shakespeare plays that examines the relationship between mother and son. First, there's King John and his mother, Queen Eleanor. Eleanor is a wise woman, pragmatic and clever, with decades of experience managing kings and thrones. John leans on her for advice and emotional support; when she dies, he becomes unglued, and his decline after is swift. The other mother-son relationship is Constance and Arthur. While John's dependence of Eleanor at times seems a little unhealthy – you're a grown man! - it pales in comparison to Constance's ambition to raise her son Arthur to the throne. Arthur is a child, and does not seem particularly inclined toward ruling, but his mother will stop at nothing to see him raised high. In the 20th century, she would be a monster of a stage mother, and one cannot feel but sorry for the poor kid. When reports reach Constance of her son's imprisonment and death by King John's hand, she gives Ophelia a run for her money. The devotion and love shown by both pairs of mother and son is touching, and really gives the play some much-needed heart. Plus, it's nice to see some strong women in Constance and Eleanor, each holding her own in a man's world.
Constance at the French Court
But that doesn't change the fact that this play is something of a butt-numb-er. Utah Shakespeare Festival did the best they could with it. The casting was great; Corey Jones was a magnificent King John, able to command the dignity and majesty of the ruler of England while betraying a nervous paranoia that steadily increased throughout the play. As Philip the Bastard, Steve Wojtas managed to preserve the humor in the character without turning him into a complete buffoon; he was a delight to watch. The stately Jeanne Paulson brought a majestic dignity to Eleanor while Melinda Pfundstein's Constance radiated passion and emotion, a brilliant contrast that really highlighted the differences (and similarities) between the two mothers.
I would be lying if I said I'm eager to see King John again, but since I'm trying to see all of Shakespeare's plays I'm glad I had the chance to see this one.
Photos by Karl Hugh.