King John. By Shakespeare? William Shakespeare? Nope. Never heard of it. Why does no-one ever do it anymore?
Hmm. Good question, rhetorical-meld-of-a-bunch-of-people-I-told-about-our-rehearsed-reading-of-King-John. Having finished the process of reading, editing, rehearsing and performing the play, I’m still not entirely sure why it is pretty much never done. Here’s my theories. (I mean, obviously it’s a mixture of these and other reasons. Obviously. But who doesn’t love a list? NO-ONE.If Buzzfeed has taught us one thing, that is it. And that the things we will believe can be blown to shreds by a friendship between a dog and a duck):
PRINCE ARTHUR. Arthur, is a classic of the Shakespearean trope of precocious child who, from the first line he speaks, we know must come to a grizzly end (cf Macduff’s son). He is hard to play. In the BBC version, he preeeetty muuuuch wrecks every scene he’sin. Burn.
- CONSTANCE. His mother is also tricky. Constance is an incredibly powerful character, overbrimming with emotion, and well-aware of her rights and the injustices she’s suffered – and not afraid to talk about it. But how much do we think that precisely because she’s a woman? You know who goes on and on about all the bad things that have happened to them? Hamlet. Since getting to know the play, Constance’s speech about grief has become one of my favourites: ‘[Grief] stuffs out his vacant garnets with his form’. That is heart-breakingly good. The power of the depiction of parental grief is pretty much the sole reason that the play has often been dated to just after the death of Shakespeare’s own son, Hamnet, in 1596.
- FARCERIOUS. Werge [word + merge] of farce and serious. This was articulated well by Dr Dermot Cavanagh of the University of Edinburgh English department who is something of an authority. He once taught me on a course entitled, ‘Shakespeare The Fabulous Politician’. Imagine how great you must be to insert that ‘fabulous’. Was it a dare? Did it increase course take up? Anyway, after bumping into him at a conference, he and I were having a wee chat about King John. He talked about the play teetering between moods. This was very clear in our performances of the scene where Hubert tries to burn out the eyes of aforementioned Prince Arthur. On the first night the audience were in stitches, and on the second night the place was deadly silent and people cried. Unbelievable.
- IT USED TO BE FASHIONABLE. People used to be WELL into King John. In the meeting of two mighty powers, there’s lots of chance to have big, flag-bearing, armour-wearing, pageantry. Guess who loved it most. Guess. Yup, Victorians. But even before that it was a popular one for a hundred years or so. David, who played Falconbridge and the Dauphin in our production, pointed out that Jane Austen had complained in a letter to her sister that a performance of King John which they were going to see was replaced by Hamlet. Rather than seeing Hamlet (BORED), they went to see Macbeth a different night: ‘it is a disappointment to us both.’ With the descent of the ethos and aesthetic of King John, came the ascent of the ethos and aesthetic of Hamlet.
To match that list of why it’s rarely done, though, here’s a list of why when we did it it was bloody great:
- LOADS OF WOMEN. We just didn’t even mind about women playing men. We had a cast of 14, doing a lot of doubling of roles, but we only had 4 men. In the programme I quoted the statistic from the Guardian that 84% of Shakespeare’s parts are male – of his 981 characters, 826 are male and 155 female. There was, by chance, quite a lot of chat in the papers around this time about women on stage in classic plays, including by Scotland’s critical monarch, Queen Joyce. Rupert Christiansen even declared that men in women’s roles ‘would be an experiment worth trying.’ As my pal, Steve, said – let me refer you to MOST OF THE REST OF WESTERN DRAMA. It just really doesn’t seem to be a problem to me to cast women in the male roles. I don’t feel it needs to be explained. Or that it needs to be a thing – although, of course, it could be part of a concept for a piece. That works too. But for ours, it just was. It was deliberate, but no biggie. I don’t think a single person in our audience thought, ‘Bargh, but, what? That WOMAN was just referred to as LORD Salisbury. I just don’t understand what is going on in this narrative as a result of that and have thus abandoned all attempt to engage with it.’ The one point where we were faced with a real contradiction was when there were some women, speaking as men, admonishing themselves for showing womanly tears. But, we don’t think that anymore, right? That crying is only for girls? Just like we no longer find most of Launcelot Gobbo’s schtick hilarious. We just let it wash over us. IT’S FINE.
- CHEAT SHEET. We had lots of doubling of roles, even within the same scene. To help folk keep up we gave a cheat sheet of photos and names. We didn’t give actor biogs or anything, just the pictures. A number of people commented to me and other cast members that it really helped them follow it.
- NOT JUST A READING. This was a Stone Soup Shakespeare Semi-Staged Reading. I thought it would be good to have a very small bit of staging in terms of where a scene would start and making sure that people referred their lines to the right people. But as we worked on rehearsals, the cast were remarkably willing to move about. This was despite the fact that performing like that that sort of feels like performing the worst stage of rehearsal – when you are tied to your book, but also trying to interact. As frustrating as it is for actors, though, I think it helps the audience.
- AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION. ‘Gurk’, say the audience. In this case it seemed to be pretty well enjoyed by all. Near the start, the audience were the city of Angiers, so the Citizen stood up from the back row of the seating bank to address the warring kings. This was exciting, and solved the problem of having everyone on stage turning away from the audience to look at the back wall. Through the rest of the play, the audience were ‘The Concept of War’. Actually, they were the sound effects of actual wars in the play, but it’s much more fun to imbue a group of people with the characteristics of an abstract concept. This enlivened the audience, raised the energy in the room, meant that we didn’t need any tech at all and helped in the telling of the story. Bang on, it was.
- IT WAS £3. We had people who actually talked about the fact that they had not been able to see any other theatre recently because of cost. Even a fiver is too much for some folk. Most of the audience was, as ever at this stage in my career, folk we knew. But there were exceptions (I insisted on being in the Tron brochure to reach a non-pal audience), and I want to raise the percentage of non-pals-who-can-only-come-because-it’s-less-than-a-fiver each time we do anything. ONWARDS AND UPWARDS!
- BLOODY GOOD CAST. Yup.
I am pleased. I am proud. And I recommend that you read King John. It’s
actually really good.