Wednesday, November 16, 2016


Fuzzy, disorderly, unclear production


Without entering the discussion whether the 1591 quarto is a mediocre first version of the play and this 1594 one an improved re-written version, or the 1591 bad quarto is just a bad quarto edition of the present play, this choice moving the play between 1591 and 1594 or vice versa, let’s say this play is not one of the best histories Shakespeare is famous for. It is the end of John’s reign. John is weak, irresolute, hesitating on every issue, wavering one way or the other according to events, over-reactive at times, just uncertain at other times. He is without any royal glory or any greatness at all, as a man as well as a soldier.

This makes him the real plaything of events.

The play starts with him recognizing a bastard son Philip of his brother Richard I as a member of the family, hence a cousin of his, with the benediction of both John’s and Philip’s mothers. This cousin will be essential all along in dealing with the nobles and the lords.

The quarrel with the King of France is complicated and uncertain though it is the first time the King of France actually tries to invade England and sends his son the Dauphin there with an army and the promised support of the English Lords after some kind of a quarrel brought to a settlement outside Angiers, with an exchange of relatives, King John’s niece Blanche to marry the Dauphin and Arthur, Duke of Britain (in fact Brittany), a nephew to King John, who has a claim to the English throne as the son of John’s elder brother, to go the English court as some kind of hostage-prisoner-guest. King John seriously hesitates on his fate: be killed, be blinded or be kept alive as a direct successor to him in spite of his own son, Prince Henry.

Strangely enough Hubert de Burgh does not carry out his mission to kill at first and blind then Arthur but Arthur tries to escape his custody and jumps from some battlement and kills himself. A strange situation deals with the Pope and his Legate, Cardinal Pandulph, who excommunicates King John because of some quarrel on the appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury and the decision to make abbeys pay for the war against the French king. This Legate incites the French King to go at war against the English King but he negotiates some agreement with King John who is crowned a second time (after his excommunication is repealed) but the legate cannot stop the Dauphin in his war. Yet apparently the English Lords who supported the Dauphin step back and some hazard destroy the supply ship of the Dauphin’s army, but on the other side the English led by Philip Falconbridge, the bastard son of Richard I’s, is more or less made powerless by some flood in their camp. The Legate then manages to get some agreement, just before King John dies which enables Prince Henry to become the new King, Henry III.

This play is very messy as for events and connections among and between the characters. There is no decisive decision and no decisive action on any side. It is all confused decisions and confused actions that establish some kind of fuzzy atmosphere. Prince Arthur is shown pleading for his safety with Hubert and winning and then a couple of scenes later he is shown jumping from some battlement on his own initiative and killing himself. The King himself is poisoned by some monk, they say, but he had reached such a level of disorderly thinking and behaving that the poison is not changing much: he was not able to take a clear decision and he was better off dead. In fact everyone was better off with him dead even if the new king was young, inexperienced and more or less overwhelmed by events.

But all ends well. The king is taken away. The Prince becomes king. Philip Falconbridge cleans up the military situation. The Legate puts everything back in order and “Long live the king!” The production is rather light and I must say the battlements of Angiers or the royal castle really look like cardboard, maybe plywood. The costumes are rich and fancy, maybe too much. And it is true of many of these productions by the BBC that the diction, the language is too respectful of the iambic pentameter or simply iambic rhythm, which takes any natural prosody or even poetry from the language. I guess it was still the norm in the early 1980s in Great Britain. The costumes are so heavy and cumbersome that there cannot be any kind of agile or swift movement at all and since we are in an old TV production the picture is centered on close-up images  or images zooming more or less slow onto close-up faces or upper half bodies.


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