Theatre review: The Troublesome Reign of King John of England

Great stuff

Intended as a theatrical contribution to the Magna Carta celebrations, the Read Not Dead’s final production of its series was of The Troublesome Reign of King John of England by George Peele. David Wurtzel was there

“Read Not Dead” is part of Shakespeare’s Globe education projects. On a Sunday morning, actors are given the script of a long-forgotten late 16th century/early 17th century play which they perform at a reading the same afternoon. Recently and appropriately these have taken place in the Inns, home to so much Elizabethan and Jacobean drama at the time. The present series culminated on 1 March with George Peele’s The Troublesome Reign of King John of England. The Globe intended it to contribute to the 800th anniversary celebrations of “the signing by King John of Magna Carta”. For what it is worth, the Charter was not signed but sealed and is never mentioned in this four-hour play.

What the play did have was a good plot, plenty of action, and marvellous verse. There are a number of themes running through it: royal legitimacy, primogeniture, war vs. diplomacy, Papal effrontery, the defeat of rebellion and the rule of law. Catering to the sensibilities of contemporary audiences was clearly more important than portraying the priorities of early 13th century English politics. There are rebellious barons but without Magna Carta they are only seen revolting against their true king, and so must be defeated. A largely young cast spoke the verse beautifully, and simulated battle scenes by running around Inner Temple Hall shouting and waving banners in a rather thrilling way. They seemed completely at ease with a play they first saw only hours before. No one stood still for long. If it was not quite a “rehearsed reading” it was certainly a reading with plenty of action. As the king, Elliot Fitzpatrick, only a few years out of drama school, brought to John two qualities one hitherto had not associated with him – charm and litheness. There was a cast of 15 actors, most of whom take several parts, including barrister-turned-actor Iain Christie who lately appeared in Murder in the Cathedral in Temple Church. There were also good parts for the women who largely spent their time upbraiding the men. The costumes were simple – suits or leather jackets, an evening dress, splendid overcoats, a few cardboard crowns, a well-chosen hat.

The play begins with the king having to adjudicate the claim of a younger son to inherit his father’s title and estate. There is an elder son, Philip, but he allegedly was fathered by none other than Richard the Lionheart. After a moment of anguish Philip sensibly decides that the shame of his mother’s adultery matters less than being a king’s son, and he acknowledges Richard as his true father. Thereafter he becomes his Uncle John’s most loyal and powerful subject. Superbly warlike, he manages during battles in France to wreak revenge on Richard’s captor, the evil Duke of Austria. The French war is due to John having taken the throne from his own elder brother’s son, Prince Arthur. The dispute is patched up by giving Arthur’s French lands to Blanche of Castile and then marrying her to the Dauphin.

After this success, John orders the imprisonment and death of Prince Arthur (Patrick Walshe McBride). There is a great scene between him and his putative murderer. Will the killer “lose salvation for a king’s reward?” Arthur asks. Yes, “to keep the world in order”. There follows a debate as to whether a killing can be lawful unless someone has been convicted of a crime, or whether the king’s command is sufficient. Magna Carta may be absent, but the issues of due process are there. The murderer spares Arthur, but the prince dies by accident when trying to escape from the castle. John is caught between losing his sovereignty to the Pope and losing his kingdom to the rebellion which seeks to put the Dauphin on the English throne. He begins defiantly (“I will reign as supreme head, spiritual and temporal”) and resists the Pope but only for as long as it takes to ransack the abbeys.

In the end John with Philip’s help defeats his temporal enemies. But there is no pleasing the Church and he is poisoned by friars at Swinstead Abbey where he has taken refuge (“this is the fruit of Popery, when true kings are poisoned”). It ends with the ascension of Henry III as the foreign invaders slink away. It was great stuff, performed with gusto.

Contributor David Wurtzel 

Counsel Editorial Board Member

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