Review by Michael D’Antoni
William Shakespeare was likely the most influential writer in all of English literature and certainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and James I (1603-1625)
His works have been collected and printed in various editions and In every language. As there are 37 plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare’s plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of western literature and culture till this day. Shakespeare is credited with inventing many words and phrases we use today, as his works have inspired modern movies and books.
King John is a history play written around 1596. It presents a different view of English history than did Shakespeare’s earlier history plays, which depicted the infighting among the Royals during the War of the Roses. While King John focuses on actual historical events, it does not attribute any fundamental meaning or significance to John’s reign. Rather, it treats history as an unpredictable unfolding of events, in which seemingly decisive moments become insignificant episodes in an otherwise haphazard universe.
Now, that we are past the historical aspects allow me to say that, sadly enough in this version, one never feels that director nor actors have a burning passion to revive this play with all is treachery and incest, whilst adorning it’s typically handsome, intelligent and at times sardonic comic edge.
This particular revival is bland and rudimentary whereby the production could have resoundingly used a bit more of a stately appearance (particularly in the less gripping second half) especially when some of the cast became more inaudible and beleaguered pushing the evening into about two and half hours.
Still, the production did remind this reviewer that the Shakespearean work entitled “The Life and Death of King John” is by no means the runt of his literary collection. The scarcity of revivals (professional or regional) might lead one to believe that the man himself was to be as irredeemably bad as the Bard originally intended.
King John is a man out of his depth and only kept afloat by his mother’s blind love. So much is clear from the opening moments, when he reacts to his mother’s announcement that his claim to the throne, after the death of Richard the Lionheart, is upheld over that of his nephew, Arthur. John gives a little verbal mock of surprise, as if to say: “What! Little old me? King?”
Moreover and most unfortunately, as the evening dragged on, actors started to wane to the much distracting point when some of them just do a lot of unnecessary acting, as if to fill a void in order to compensate for the lack of adequate spacing of the their individual timings. Lost was the complete immersion of one’s self in Shakespeare as written.
Tonights actors (for the most part, as there were a few exceptions) apparently forgot what was taught in first year English Literature class that Shakespeare’s writings (especially parts of his speech) are frequently switched and normal sentence order is varied, often for the sake of rhyme or meter. Rhythmic in style. Shakespeare played with standard language such as features including using nouns or adjectives as verbs. While verbs and subjects which don’t agree are often omitted or used as implied words. Additionally, metaphors and similes may make some passages more difficult to understand. Shakespeare also heavily used puns, double meanings for comedic effect.
Note this is aptly depicted in the popular Shakespearean phrase: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts.”
All that being said, what is constantly paramount is, an actor does not learn Shakespeare he or she must live it on stage using the verbal imaging gifted to all of us by the writer. Tonight was a rendition provided by a host of actors most of which bear the weight of Shakespearean inexperience.
RAY LAUDO as the hapless and outwardly disheveled King John in what should have been a central, strong and confident performance is portrayed as a likeable, ill-starred sort which is not what the Bard intended. LAUDO suggests that King John was more sad and silly than outright usurping and rotten. Downright corrupt puppet in the clutches of an overbearing mother is where this future king should have been! But LAUDO’S lacklustre appeal did John an injustice.
John’s most vocal opposition is supplied by Constance played by JANE CULLEY, mother of the prince. It would be difficult to find a more vexatious widow in all of Shakespeare. In comparison, Lady Macbeth might seem like a Merry Wife of Windsor. CULLEY’S weak adjuring quality and at times inaudible voice lent an air of passiveness to what should have been a most bitter and angry woman, bent on always having her way.
The relationship between LAUDO’S John and CAIT KILEY, who played the fearsome Eleanor, a character that was written to be paradoxical as well as, beautifully drawn in both depth and detail especially down to the way she grips John both physically and emotionally. For one brief moment we saw the look of horror on her face when John attempts to make a decision for himself, a small joy to behold. Virtually one of the only times we felt who she really was, overbearing and constraining. I was waiting for KILEY’S Eleanor to extoll her controlling power, masked as love, over John but alas, it never came.
However, there were some enjoyable moments. In the lesser tolerance we were treated to a few noteworthy performances.
JEREMY RAFAL (Bastard) owned the stage the moments he was front and center with his nice characterizations and body style. His only drawback was he slurred his speech which took away from his physical abilities. Often, it was hard to understand what he was saying.
SUSAN LY (Arthur) was what a small character role should be. From the moment you walk on stage make an impression and make it memorable.
SAMUAL HARDY (Dauphin) who, along with JUSTIN CLARK (King Philip) lived in every moment of the play as both had a rather grand command of the Elizabethan tongue as it was meant to be spoken.
GRETA BLACKBURN (Lady Falconbridge) was exemplary of one of those small stage “Grand Dame’s” who lives the fullness of Shakespeare in all its glory.
Finally, the director JAMES JENNINGS, makes a gallant effort to deliver clarity to this rather detailed and intricate plot but despite the central performance distractions the end result was a prohibitively serviceable evening rather then the thrilling one the audience should have received.