The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The King Has Lost His Crown

Another review of a BBC Shakespeare which, if you couldn’t tell from reading it, dates from 2006.


THE LIFE AND DEATH OF KING JOHN

There are certain subjects that get more interesting the more you find out about them. They are like bottomless wells of interest; Doctor Who, the Beatles, David Bowie, art, religion, history, politics and collecting nude appearances by REDACTED in film and TV.

Shakespeare is another such bottomless well. Or bottomless 'Will'!! There is always something more to dig up, and each discovery opens up another three or four seams. For instance, yesterday I visited the Shakespeare exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It was rather weird, seeing virtually every single piece of documentary evidence for the man's existence gathered together in one room. There isn't a great deal of it, to be honest. Bit overpriced.

Couple of things struck, though. How much Ben Jonson looks like Tom Baker, for instance. And I'm now undecided about Love's Labour's Won. It's like trying to decide whether Vengeance on Varos is any good or not, as soon as I've convinced myself to think one thing, I start thinking the opposite. There is clear, printed evidence that the play existed in some sense, and was published. And Love's Labour's Lost seems to be open-ended. But, if that is the case, why, when Shakespeare revived Love's Labour's Lost later in his career, did he not bother with its sequel? Was it because it was crap? Seems unlikely,. Maybe it was because it had been reworked titled as All's Well That Ends Well - which would be interesting, in that Having A Decent Ending was considered such a unique selling point that it was mentioned in the show's title.

But it was published, so maybe it will still turn up in [WATLING] Hong Kong [/WATLING]. And a copy of Cardenio seems to have been knocking around in the mid 18th century, maybe a print was 'bicycled' to Iran or somewhere. Get Levine on the case.

Cardenio was Shakey's re-telling on Don Quixote. And seems to be another victim of the curse of Quixote, that scuppered Orson Welles' and Terry Gilliam's film adaptations, and which also sounded the death-knell for Nik Kershaw's riddle-mongering pop career.

Lots of other top facts. The Shakey was once accused of threatening GBH to his neighbours in Southwark. The reason why Shakey doesn't bother to introduce characters properly is that the convention in those days was for the actors to wear name badges (or rather, name scrolls). And one of the Shakey's first plays was a version of Hamlet. Or at least a play with a ghost in it and a speech that began 'To be or not to be'. Well, I thought that was a top fact.

I've reattempted Peter Ackroyd's biography, just skipping to read about the plays, which is enjoyable because he intelligently comes to many of the same conclusions as me. Apparently the guy in Love's Labour's Lost who talks like he's had a thesaurus rammed up his arse is a parody of the guy who wrote one of the first dictionaries, John Florio. And he points out all the continuity errors in Measure for Measure too. But to be honest he lacks my insight.

Anyway, onto King John. In which the lead - and, dare I say it, eponymous - role of King John is played by Leonard Rossiter.

Now, if I had to compile a top 10 of actors-who-should-have-been-in-Doctor-Who, Len would undoubtedly be at the top of the list. It would be quite difficult to think of another 9 names, just because every other bloody actor has been in Doctor Who at some point, or, if they are still alive, are still quite liable to do so, what with all the stars turning up in the audios and the new series featuring the likes of Ron Cook and Richard Wilson.

But it's a shame Len was never in Doctor Who. He could have been in a Troughton story, playing the guy on the brink of a nervous breakdown who doesn't want his weather control machine to be switched off. Watching The Year of the Sex Olympics, you can see how great he looks in a futuristic boiler suit. And he was in 2001 as well.

Can anyone else think of actors who should have been in Doctor Who? I'm sure we can compile a top 10 between us. The only rule is that they have to be dead so there is no chance of them turning up in future. And no you can't vote for Mr Pastry.

Somewhat surprisingly, King John doesn't feature his famous apocryphal contemporary Robin Hood. The closest Shakey got to getting down with the Hood was As You Like It. Hoodmania was sweeping the nation in the early 1600s, everyone was dying their tights bright green, and every play had to feature some brigands slapping their thighs in a woodland hide-out and a friar hurriedly crossing themselves after knocking someone over the head with an earthenware pot.

Incidentally, while I'm digressing, I was opining the other day about how Kenneth Branagh seems to have stopped doing Shakespeare movies. Except I discovered he hadn't, it's just that he had done Love's Labour's Lost and it was so terrible no cinema ever bothered to show it. Apparently he's now doing As You Like It which is (subject to re-examination) nearly as bad, but at least it will have Brian Blessed in it being SHOUTY.

Speaking of Brian Blessed, I've just finished I Claudius. Much as I love to rail against accepted opinion like some sort of wild critical buccaneer, I have to agree with everyone else and it is brilliant. That said, the first few episodes are one f*ckbert of a chore to get through but things really hot up once Augustus is out of the way. It's kind of like The West Wing in togas, The West Wing being another show that I have finally got into at around the point when everyone else has given up. It's all part of my campaign to self-educate myself (I'm not really qualified to self-educate anyone else) with something marginally more worthwhile than pop music and TV trivia. That said, pop music and TV trivia remain priority one.

Look, it's Tom Baker! http://www.nndb.com/people/168/000025093/ben-jonson.jpg

Anyway, back to King John.

The BBC production. The sets. Oh my giddy arse! Even Jackanory Playhouse was never this bad. It's not attempting to be realistic but it just looks ghastly. A big, Playschool-style illustration of a castle is used to represent Algiers. It's as if the play is being performed inside a crèche. I hesitate to imagine the actors' reactions when presented with this scenery. "You expect us to f*cking act... against this? We're all going to look like prizewinning tits!" One can scarcely imagine how the sets could have been achieved more cheaply. Come back, The Pirate Planet, all is forgiven! The sets for this production make Time-Flight look like Ben Hur.

It's like that kind of double-take you get when you watch Time and the Rani. "This was actually shown on television? When people might have been watching?”

That said, it does improve in the second half, as they turn down the lights and we reconvene to a marginally less unconvincing woodland.

The story concerns the Rise and Fall of King John. He has recently been coronated. Coronationed. Crowned. King John is a weakwilled, miserly, feeble, cowardly, wheedling, skulking and conniving man. He's a liar, but he's also profoundly stupid and a terrible liar. He's not terribly sympathetic as characters go. He's not clever enough to be a Richard III, he's a Richard III wannabe.

He's dominated by his mother, Queen Elinor. The merest thought of her summons up an amusing hippo flashback.

I joke, but Leonard Rossiter is supremely brilliant as the King. In fact, everyone in this show is fantastic. The acting is so great it almost distracts you from the sets.

King John is asked to settle a dispute between the Falconbridge brothers. They are arguing over who gets to inherit their father's lands, with the younger brother saying that he is due the inheritance on account of the other brother being illegitimate.

And who plays the younger brother? If it isn't Gil Chesterton! Edward Hibbert!

King John asks the younger brother who the elder brother's dad is. It turns out his dad was Richard I (aka Richard the Lionhearted, aka Couer-De-Leon, aka Geoffrey Plantaganet). Fortunately Richard I isn't in this play.

King John settles the dispute. The younger brother can have his father's fens and spinnys (and romp in them when the twilight bathes the hedgerows like a lambent flame). And the elder brother can work for the King, as his right-hand man.

I say right-hand man. He's more of an 'enforcer'. A hard-man. If you were to mount a production now, you'd want Ross Kemp to play the part. Because the character is known only as

THE BASTARD.

Unfortunately he's not played by Ross Kemp, he's played by Bob out of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, but never mind. He is a bit of a headcase. He sings in praise of total war, in the name of Christ our Lord, put the known world to the sword and I've never met a girl like you be-fore..

Anyway, this is all preamble. It turns out Richard I had another son, called Arthur. He has allied himself with King Philip of France in a bid to gain the throne. Oddly, he has also made an alliance with a chap called Austria, who killed Richard I.


Austria is played by Gordon Kaye in an implausibly large beard. So now we have Rising Damp, Frasier and Allo Allo. This is situation comedy crossover nirvana.

The two opposing sides meet outside the town of Algiers. King John brings his domineering mother, Elinor. Did I mention that he's a bit of a mother's boy? Well, he is.

There then follows rather a long argument between King John and King Philip. Eventually they come up with a compromise which means they won't have to go to war. The deal is that the French Prince Lewis marries Richard I's daughter Princess Blanch, and King John gives the French back a whole load of their towns as a dowry. It's a good deal, and King Philip accepts. They shake hands, it's a done treaty.

But how will Prince Lewis woo Princes Blanch? King John suggests he burn the wood of the "love tree" and waft it beneath her nose to send her into an amorous frenzy...

Except that who should turn up at the wedding but Cardinal Pandulph, a meddlesome priest. What he does, he throws his papal crook into the bicycle wheel of diplomacy. King John hasn't appointed the pope's choice of Archbishop of Canterbury, and so Cardinal Pandulph excommunicates him, and threatens to excommunicate King Philip if he doesn't break his treaty with King John.

So, thanks to this shit-stirring stick-his-nose-in-where-it-isn't-wanted Catholic cleric, bloody war ensues. He persuades the French to invade England. The English capture Arthur and return with him to England. The BASTARD kills Austria.

Back in England, King John has a dilemma. Whilst Arthur remains alive, there will be some doubt over the legitimacy of his claim to the throne. If only Arthur should meet with an unfortunate accident...

He mentions this to his second hench-man, Hubert (his main hench-man, the BASTARD, being off hailing some taxes).

(Note: It was those verysame taxes that led to the Magna Carta being signed, at the bottom. But this isn't mentioned in this play. Nor is the doppleganger knocking about up North with a Frenchman with an atrocious accent. I'm sure if the real King John had heard about it he would not have had proofed)

Hubert (played by John Thaw) goes to kill Arthur but decides the kid is just too damn cute to kill. He decides to save the kid's life, and returns to the King and spins him a yarn.

Over in France, offstage, battle rages. Elinor dies. This seriously upsets King John. What's he going to do, now he hasn't got his mum to tell him what to do?

From this point on, the key changes up a tone and becomes rather fun. It's still nowhere near as good as Richard III but it's certainly up there with the best bits of the Henry VIs and Richard II.

Hearing about this 'murder' of young Arthur, the English Lords lose faith in King John and decide to join the invading French army. King John then has a bit of a moan about how much he wishes Arthur wasn't dead after all. He was such a cute kid, he didn't deserve to die.

Hubert clears his throat. 'Well, it's funny you should say that,' he says. 'Because as it happens I didn’t kill him after all.'

Result! King John is delighted and does a little happy dance. Now the English Lords will come back to him! All is saved!

Meanwhile, Arthur has got a bit bored with being locked up. He decides to climb the slippery, icy battlements and practise his tap-dancing. He meets with an unfortunate accident...

The English Lords discover his broken body at the foot of the castle walls. It looks Arthur has been murdered!

It isn't King John's day. The English Lords join up with the French, and the English army (led by the BASTARD) prepare to fight them.

In desperation, King John calls up Cardinal Pandulph and tells him he can have his choice of Archbishop of Canterbury after all. Cardinal Pandulph agrees, and dis-excommunicates the King. To celebrate, the King holds another coronation. Some people might say this is gilding the lily, but that's just the sort of thing some people would say.

In return, Cardinal Pandulph is to go to the French and tell them not to invade England after all. The French Prince Lewis is not inclined to listen, and points out that this was all the Cardinal's clever idea to begin with and it's a bit late for him to change his mind now.

The BASTARD turns up and bad-mouths everyone. 'Prince Lewis - you're a slaaaaag!' 'English Lords - you're all slaaaags!'

War ensues. But it's a bit of a rubbish battle, to be honest. It's more a competition to see who can lose first. Both sides retreat, and end up losing half their soldiers due to inclement weather. What you might call a cock-up on the organisation front.

The English Lords decide to change sides and join up with the English again. The French decide to f*ck off back to France. King John's son observes, 'I've never really been a war person.'

So it's good news for King John. He decides to go for a meal to celebrate. Unfortunately this is poisoned by a Catholic monk. So for the last act, King John is left regretting a visit to the Dodgy Italian.

It's actually quite moving. He's delirious at the end, in a fever, and finally pegs it when the BASTARD turns him to tell him how badly fought the war has just been. King John dies, and we learn that he is to be replaced  by Bruce Forsyth,. The ultimate indignity. That is the tragedy of King John.

And that's it. All in all, not too bad, once you get over the sets and the slightly wordy first half. But it feels to me like a step backwards, as though this play, with its focus on plot rather than character, is an early work, like the Henry VI's. Even the most well-drawn characters are two-dimensional, with King John nowhere near as beautifully drawn as Richard III. The language too is workmanlike and functional and the poetry never seems to express any great depth of emotion. This play isn't the work of a genius, it's a decent bit of hack-work.

The other odd thing about it is that whilst the story contains three 'baddies' - King John, King Philip and Cardinal Pandulph - we never get much of a sense of any of them being particularly bad. Apparently this play is a rewrite of a much more anti-Catholic piece, and I can't help feeling that it feels oddly neutered. The result is that we have characters doing - or contemplating doing - terrible things, without the characters ever seeming quite bad enough for it to be convincing. I know Shakey may have been an old-time Catholic, was reluctant to write something which portrayed the faith in a bad light, but all this blurring of shades of grey is ultimately unsatisfactory.

And Ben Jonson used to get stopped in the street and mistaken for Shirley Williams. Fact.

After Love's Labour's Lost, and this, I really need a decent bit of Shakey to perk myself up. Fortunately next is The Merchant Of Venice, which should be an absolute stormer. I hear that Shylock's just been to the everything-for-a-pound shop...

4 comments:

  1. I don't remember the BBC version that well, but on listening to the ArkAngel production which has Michael Feast as the lead I realised pretty quickly that it's basically a sitcom. The whole of Blackadder is basically the business in this with young Arthur and Feast plays it in full Atkinson mode. It's hilarious. Lord only knows was Rossiter does with it. Of all the plays which don't have the attention that what I call "the usual twelve or so", this is the one which deserves to be seen more.

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    1. It would work as a comedy, BBC version is a bit reverential. Would love to see it done at The Globe (they did a great comedy version of Titus Andronicus)

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  2. Yes, that's another one. If the Julie Taymor film did anything right, it was the pie scene, by which point Hopkins was essentially reprising Lector.

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  3. I have that on DVD but have never got more than 15 minutes in.

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