King John strikes back: Shakespeare's history play explores life after the Crusades
LENOX -- A young soldier stands alone in hostile country. He has just learned that his commander has agreed to a peace that will give away half of what the soldier thought he was fighting for. He is usually confident in taunting humor, but this compromise appalls him.
"That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling Commodity,
Commodity, the bias of the world --"
In Shakespeare & Company's "King John," Adam Huff plays "Phillip the Bastard," an illegitimate son of Richard Coeur de Lion, trying to find his place at the English court.
It's the year 1200 in the south of England. Richard I, the Lion-heart, is dead -- and his realm is shaking at the joints. England has no hold over Scotland, but the King of England holds western France between England and Spain -- Normandy, Brittany and the Provençal court of Aquitaine, where the troubadors were transforming Castilian and Arabic music out of Spain into new love songs.
Richard's youngest brother, John, has newly taken the English throne.
And King Philip of France wants to tip him off.
Today, King John most often appears as the villain who backs the Sherriff of Nottingham against Robin Hood while good king Richard is fighting in the Holy Land. But this King John, John Lack-land, is dark, wiry and vindictive. He is the younger brother of a legend who left his country undefended. He is his mother's unwanted son, holding onto power by his dug-in fingertips.
"For John, it's all about fighting," said Elissa Stebbins.
She spoke from conviction -- she plays John with a grim, intelligent force.
Shakespeare & Company's conservatory training program will perform "King John" in a short run, on Friday and Saturday. The conservatory has some of the structure of an Elizabethan theater troupe, a structure that fits this play, with its large cast and even distribution of lines, said Dennis Krausnick, director of training. The conservatory actors have a rare chance to perform Shakespearean works that rarely see the stage, and it gives them a rare challenge.
The actors cannot rely on anyone else's interpretation of a character, said Andrew Borthwick-Leslie, the primary text coach for the Conservatory. Most have not seen the play before.
"They have to build a character from scratch," he said, "and find out what's going on."
Huff agreed that it is refreshing to work on a play new to him. And many people in the audience will not know the story of "King John."
"It gives us responsibility as storytellers," said Iam Coulter, who plays Constance.
The story is a battle between honor and political victory.
"For Constance it's about security -- by whatever means necessary," said Coulter, who spoke of her role with warmth. Constance, the widow of John's brother Geoffrey and mother of 11-year-old Arthur, drives Phillip to attack. She wants her young son on the English throne -- and makes him a pawn between kings.
"Constance is all emotion, all desire, all passion," Coulter said. "She speaks in monologs."
"She's so eloquent about what she wants," Stebbins said, "in a way because she'll never get it. She's (all) sound and fury."
People who have power, she said, can't speak as openly.
Allegiances change. Kings compromise for gain. And the people who have sworn loyalty to them are tested -- and toppled.
"The giving and taking status in this play is phenomenal," said Nicholas Haubner. As Hubert, a nobleman speaking to protect his besieged city, he stops a battle with words.
But the play has momentum, and it has heroes.
"The bastard is one character who hangs on to a vestige of honor," said the play's director Tod Randolph, "who keeps his fealty and his word while others are shifting around him."
Shakespeare can evoke sympathy for all of the characters, she said, even for John, who can be brutal.
His audience would have known the plot. Shakespeare might bend and shift history, Krausnick, said, but the groundlings would have known the characters' names.
"He takes it whole hog like this because his audience sort of knows the stories," Krausnick said. "It would be like us doing a Civil War play: We know the animosity between the North and the South, but we don't know all the battlefields."
Borthwick-Leslie compared it to the new film, "Lincoln" -- like the film, the play condenses a stretch of years into a short space.
"40 years in a snap," Huff agreed. "A lifetime in an hour."
"From the bastard's point of view, fighting is incidental to words," he added. " ‘Henry V' starts with ‘Screw France' ... this starts with ‘let's fight because I have a vauge idea I'm right.' The battles never resolve anything. Everything is resolved off the field."
Though many fall short of it, Shakespeare has set the whole cast a goal.
"Be as great in act as you have been in thought," Haubner said.
'King John' at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox
What: Conservatory at Shakespeare & Company presents Shakespeare's ‘King John'
When: Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 1 and 7 p.m.
Where: Tina Packer Playhouse, Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox
Admission: $16 for adults; $8 for students
Information: (413) 637-1199, www.shakespeare.org
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.