King John



Why do people go to obscure Shakespeare? Generally they do want to see a good play, but I suspect that a lot of the audience for your Pericles or what have you is familiar with the more popular part of Shakespeare’s oeuvre and is curious to see the less popular titles staged—that a good deal of their pleasure in seeing it will derive from this form of satisfaction. Not quite completism, but not a totally disinterested desire to attend a play matching thus summary. Thus I’m ambivalent about this production of King John’s decision to commingle various playtexts to arrive at this script. Per an unusually decently written Telegraph review, director Trevor Nunn makes a “Barton-like decision to re-order and augment the text with other material, notably George Peele’s The Troublesome Reign of King John (what’s a source for the Bard is sauce for the director).” (I disagree with the review on almost all points and think very little of the publication, but given that London theatre criticism is on the whole so very, very bad at present, it is excitingly competent!)

Did I want to, as that write-up accuses Nunn of doing, tick King John off my list as a viewer? Well, frankly, yes. I wanted to experience a staged King John, and to be able to form an opinion on the play that I could make intellectual use of in other contexts. I see the extent to which this represents the commodification of an artwork, but I’m also either sympathetic to or realistic about that effect. Of course we want to see a given play because someone’s in it, because it’s by that company, because it’s the only Lorca we haven’t seen, the last time she’ll work with him, etc. etc. And of course that’s how art is marketed and received.

So does Nunn’s decision to sacrifice the extent to which this is ‘a King John’ for what he hoped would be a richer play experience sit well with me? But there again, how different is this from the ordinary work of ambitious staging (as per Wars of the Roses), which could shift scene order and excise glibly, which doubles and combines characters as a matter of course? Grand revisions aside, any staging whatever consists of making decisions about how a given line ought to be contextualized and performed. I can’t remember what fictional character it was who only liked to read sheet music because any orchestration would inevitably be imperfect, but that is the negative, not wholly inaccurate view of what you get when you ‘collapse’ a script into a singular interpretation. On the other hand, staging can be a script’s realization, its grand opening up, and can introduce a rich new gamut of possible readings. Nunn’s approach is, I think, ultimately appealing to me, standing as it does to create something complicated and fresh, even as I’m not necessarily convinced by the effect in this particular case. (John’s dream sequence, for example, did not work for me.) My loyalty is essentially with pieces rather than concepts. (Even as I am, nonetheless, still a little frustrated by not having ‘accomplished’ King John as such.)

This… is indeed, as you know coming in, a Problem Play. Though it wasn’t always thought of as one!

“In the Victorian era, King John was one of Shakespeare’s most frequently staged plays, in part because its spectacle and pageantry were congenial to Victorian audiences. King John, however, has decreased in popularity: it is now one of Shakespeare’s least-known plays and stagings of it are very rare.[23] It has been staged four times on Broadway, the last time in 1915.[24] It has also been staged five times from 1953 to 2014 at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.[25]

Essentially, Fucking Victorians.

I can’t help but feel this play has no excuse to be as late as it is in Shakespeare’s development as a playwright. (Though looking at the end of Shakespeare’s career, man he was ready to retire.) Though there’s a good energy to John, at least in this production. It clips along well for the first half, and honestly at some points I thought—perhaps this isn’t a bad play? It had a lot of good lines, as you always expect (though in looking some up I’ve discovered not all of these are from Shakespeare’s version, so.). You can definitely see in John a thematic continuity with several of Shakespeare’s other plays—sometimes similar ideas, imagery and turns of phrase crop up. In that respect, perhaps Shakespeare needed to turn out some King Johns so he could work through the ideas that would show up in more developed forms in Hamlet, Macbeth, etc.

While the stage business of the history play goes on apace, on the lesser end of the Shakespearean history play spectrum but generally fine, the Bastard (Howard Charles) emerges as an engrossing, morally ambivalent key POV figure. He always seems liable to do some great evil or to take his father’s throne from his uncle—a threat that, curiously, usurping John never seems to fear. I know he’s a bastard, but so was William the Conquerer, and this new guy clearly has the Lionheart boldness. Even if England’s left the rough and ready days of the conquest behind it by this period, you get the sense that he might well find a way.

Yet there’s something clownish about the Bastard. It’s not just in his outsider/fool’s prerogative to social commentary, but can also be found in his outsize, almost inappropriate braggadocio. It seemed as though there were several ways one might have played his social reception. The Bastard is in some ways kin to several Shakespeare villains: to Richard III, Edmund, Don John, etc. There again, he has something in common with Shakespeare’s thoughtful commentators—his monologues inviting the audience to stay with him, wherever his uncertain course takes him. The Bastard anchors the play structurally, and in some ways I can see why he would make refashioning King John particularly appealing: one does want it to be his adventure. This actor was winning, as I think whoever takes the part really ought to be: sympathetic and off-putting, cynical, rousing and roused, sneering at the hypocrisy around him and the turns of fate. Given the final word, even if the final word does fall rather limp—a sub-Henry V stab at patriotism, strangely tying up a play in which love of country and grand destiny have played little part.

This performance was especially impressive given that he was playing to a house less than half full, and might well have been deflated, given how much energy a performer can derive from a responsive audience. Even in these depressing circumstances everyone did well, really. In general the casting was effective and the directorial/acting decisions strong, though the acting was sort of in the style of the BBC early 1980s Shakespeare adaptation series. I like that mode, but I think it might strike some people as old-fashioned or, if they’re unfamiliar with or unsympathetic to that style and moment of acting Shakespeare, simply queer.

Contrary to the Telegraph’s point of views I don’t think this was a weak John (Jamie Ballard), actually. There’s a squirrelly likeability to him, especially when he’s being obstinate and fucking up. Much like the Richard II I saw last, really this staging impressed on me the arbitrariness and fragility of ‘strength and decision’ in Kingship, in the way War and Peace is about the fallacy of believing that anyone’s a ‘tactical genius’. John did make an awful, murderous call regarding his nephew Arthur, who he feared would continue to compete with him for the throne, but this isn’t quite positioned as his problem as a ruler.

It’s unclear just what John’s problem is: in many circumstances he seems to bear up. Is it the moment of doubt the Bastard rallies him out of? I can’t really see Shakespeare condemning a character for that period of introspection. Is it too much pragmatism, in marrying Blanch to the Dauphin? Too little, in his obstinacy against the Pope? Too much again, in relenting? Despoiling the monasteries, as Richard II did his nobles with taxation? The nobles’ treachery or stupidity (or are they rather to blame for being too good and trusting, in their belief that the Dauphin will do right by them)? In this version at least, I could not quite tell you why John is a Bad King (it’s not exactly the Arthur mess, for which he’s only part culpable). In Henry VI I could, and in Richard II I could give you an answer depending on the production, and Richard III is pie-easy, but this John: ???

People’s fortunes rise and fall in this play not because they’re brave or brilliant or good, but because no one is unshakably any of these. And if they are, that isn’t enough. Arthur, the king that ought to have been, is young, high-born and fair, intelligent, brave and good, and dies horribly specifically on account of being all these things.

Would-be-murderer Hubert and Arthur (here played by the excellent understudy) were also particularly good, and I must point out the unexpected but pleasing appearance of Miles Richardson (Brax!!) in silly facial hair as A Rando Lord. British Theatre: all 50 people of it. You see them around, and if you don’t you get worried about whether they’re eating. (Not whether they’ve died, because Toby Hadoke would have been duly dispatched to spit out an article on that occasion.)

The Kingston Rose itself is a very nice space. The entire theatre, inside the auditorium and out, feels simultaneously both roomy and comfortable and intimate. The double-seats would be weird if I had to share with a stranger rather than my partner, but happily, I did not. They have quite reasonable prices, as well. I kind of fancy going to see something else at this theatre—not ‘any old shit’, but you know, if there happened to be something goodish looking going on there, I’d be more inclined to bite due to the place’s being pleasant, even as something would have to be dipped in gold before my arse, which still smarts with the memory, would again brave the Haymarket cheap seats.


I love the Rose’s current set design (essentially the above with less silly bling), re-purposed from Nunn’s epic Wars of the Roses last year. And who can blame them for up-cycling? That lighting is high quality, real flame you can instantly turn off, and what must be, for Health and Safety reasons, super-retardant wood—that thing must have been dear.). However this play, which lends itself more to stately tableaux than to dynamic action, didn’t make thorough use of this tiered framework. I don’t see how they could have done, really, and I wouldn’t want arbitrary running up and down to generate energy. (If you’re not the Globe, don’t try to Globe in some half-assed fashion.) But my sister, high off her first public directing gig, was poisonous as a monk and as unforgiving as young Arthur’s mother on this front. She would have Nunn of it.

That said, there was much to complain about in the staging. The tinny music, pumped in at volume, seemed a little Am-Dram. But that is not the real problem. This is:

“There are faintly ghastly synthesised fanfares, the sort of modish use of live video to capture the coronation of Jamie Ballard’s John (with obtrusive cameramen) that already looks old-hat, and on the two distracting monitors aloft we’re also shown scene-setting snapshots and mock-medieval battlefield footage that musters all the atmosphere of a conference-centre slide-show.”

The gentleman from the Telegraph is, I am still astounded to note, totally correct. In fact this description does not capture the full horror of what transpired. I initially refused to believe any mature adult production, much less a director of Nunn’s experience, has tried to pull something that, while conceptually sound, was as awkward-looking as the love between a Chihuahua and a Great Dane. One may sympathize with this uncomfortable passion, but not present it as a spectacle to a paying audience: it is best to draw a veil. I thought no—this is a one-off thing. I insisted as much to sister and partner, who disagreed. There has been a Technical Difficulty, I said, opening my credulous heart to this poor production team, who were frantically working around some catastrophe.

But no. No! Someone, cradle to grave, thought this would look good. Someone watched it after the hurly-burly was done and the previews lost and won and thought, yes. Someone instructed and paid these cameramen, every show. The footage is not even pre-recorded. I suppose these visuals were meant to engage us in a discourse on power, image, celebrity and pressure, but they do so only incidentally by reminding me that once the Bad Decision Ball starts rolling down a hill, it is particularly difficult to stop and can crush all in its path (especially so if it was first shoved by someone powerful).

Better scenes of Medieval Battle than a sad attempt to faux-stage one with even this sizable cast, I suppose. And I wouldn’t let my entire judgment of the staging and aesthetics of the piece rest on this one (spectacularly poor) decision. I even like the big Whole Cast Gather Round tableaux! But over and again, wonky dream sequence to the falling Prince Arthur (everything on the screens at odds with the general 80s BBC adaptation aesthetic), I thought, would that either someone Back to Basics or someone weird and good like whoever designed Curious Incident had worked this either down or up. You’re either speaking a certain visual language or you aren’t, and you can’t awkwardly garble a few loan-words and call it patois.

It’s so hard to call what’s gone wrong in a production unless you get the dirt (and does it ultimately matter exactly where the fuck up originated?). You can see the effects, but even as it’s hard to talk about the work of an editor from looking at a final draft, when you see a play it’s hard to single out whether certain decisions are a result of there having been no money, of some hitch in the process, of a failure of collaboration, a bad costume designer or a director who didn’t care.

That said, I have no idea what to make of Trevor Nunn. Looking over the course of his career, which has been studded with incredible successes, I wonder whether he’s (and this is never a stone I like to throw) gone to seed, or if he just didn’t care about the technical aspects of this production. Possibly he simply needed the cash? Or perhaps he’s always been erratic. I loved Nunn’s Ian McKellan and Judi Dench Macbeth, and have enjoyed Lady Jane since childhood. And you can’t blame Nunn for Starlight Express (answer me ‘fuck no’) and Cats being what they are—that’s on Andrew ‘Massive Tory’ ‘Love Never Dies’ Lloyd Webber, who seems to sometimes be incredibly good at his job largely by accident. But I can barely remember Nunn’s 2011 Haymarket version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, despite its having featured my absolutely beloved Jamie Parker. That’s especially strange because if I’m given a bit to think on it, I remember every play I’ve attended with creepy Miss Havisham levels of fidelity. I’m ambivalent about his National Oklahoma, particularly the staging of “Pore Jud Is Daid”. His Twelfth Night film didn’t make an enormous impression on me. I know the Cyrano project he produced was a rough ride from the translator’s notes, but I’m not sure enough about Nunn’s role in that to talk about his performance in collaborations. I have a personal grudge against him for not ‘getting’ Gareth Thomas as a performer and for not, I suspect (based on interviews, rather than a 70s/80s conspiracy theory), having given him a proper chance during his reign over the RSC, but I’m aware that I’m biased on that front.

I guess my take-away is not necessarily that Nunn gave no fucks about his King John, but that he is a director with severe strengths and weaknesses, and has been for a good long while. I think I can almost vaguely discern the shape of His Problem As I See It. Something like—no real feel for working with spaces and sets (and possibly with costuming). Fantastic with actors, but simultaneously prone to marshalling them and the texts he directs to the affects he likes and works best with, sometimes inappropriately. Prone to rejecting what he can’t get to operate in his chosen register, which sometimes means pushing away both certain forms of subtlety/complexity and comic/non-realist registers? (And if the latter is true—what the fuck was he doing directing a Nicholas Nickleby? I’m going to watch that shit and find out…) But I’d have to sit down at the V&A archive and get access to a good chunk of his back-catalogue to shape and confirm my guesses. And that sounds like a thesis, or at least an article, and I don’t see ‘Trevor Nunn the Monograph’ in my future.



4 thoughts on “King John

  1. Wow, How insightful. Your sister sounds like a child genius. I would watch anything she staged.

  2. “I can’t remember what fictional character it was who only liked to read sheet music because any orchestration would inevitably be imperfect,”

    It’s Lord Vetinari, which means it’s probably someone else as well, but I definitely recall the Pratchett iteration.

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