Review: ‘King John’ at Hamlet Isn’t Dead. Shakespearean Off-Cut, or Hidden Gem?
Thomas Burns Scully
OnStage New York Critic
NEW YORK, NY - Say the name ‘King John’ to someone and the likely response will be mild confusion. Or “The bad guy from Robin Hood?” But King John is also the subject and title of what is possibly William Shakespeare’s least performed play. A historical from sometime in the mid-1590s, ‘King John’ tells the story of its eponymous monarch, his struggles to remain on the English throne, and the French opposition that threatened to depose him. ‘Hamlet Isn’t Dead’ have just finished a staging of this performance-starved text (in their ongoing quest to perform every one of Shakespeare’s plays in chronological order), and the results were pleasingly pleasing.
It’s my custom to forego a synopsis in Shakespeare reviews, because the stories are so well known, and synopses so readily available on the internet. However, due to ‘King John’s deep-cut status, I will forego my usual forgoing. In the play that bears his name, King John’s claim to the throne is being disputed by King Philip of France. Philip believes that the young noble Arthur is the true heir to the throne. Despite initially successful peace talks, interference from the Catholic Church sends the French and the English to war. In the course of this, Arthur is captured, and as the losses pile up on both sides, loyalties fray and everyone’s life and power is at stake.
If anything, this play puts me in mind of a demure episode of ‘Game of Thrones’. The power struggles that in Shakespeare historicals normally feel like Grecian myths, battles among Gods, here feel petty, bitter and conniving. It’s as if the intention of the work is to show the impotent nature of political squabbling. Keeping with the ‘Game of Thrones’ theme, there’s a young boy who falls from a great height, a charismatic bastard and marriage of convenience that quickly becomes inconvenient. Aside from a few standout pieces, it’s easy to see why the play doesn’t get performed all that often. It’s not that it’s a bad play, but for almost every scene, there is a better realized version of that scene somewhere else in Shakespeare’s canon. That said, the work that director Lisa LaGrande does with the play is excellent.
It’s first worth noting that her cast is excellent. Isaac Miller is impossible to dislike as the scene-stealing Bastard, Philip, and speaks the text as if it were written only yesterday. Leah Alfieri as the young would-be King Arthur brings a tremendous awkward innocence to the part that jumps ably between pitiably endearing and surprisingly funny. Kathryn Connors as a cross-gendered King John provides the central totem around which the company circles. Quite a company it is too, filling in the supporting roles neatly and deftly, these actors earn blanket praise for their diligence, commitment and charm. There are no weak links here.
LaGrande’s vision for the play is marred slightly by the venue. Hamlet Isn’t Dead often perform shows at the Westbeth Artists' Community. No matter how inventively the space is used (and it is used very inventively) you can’t quite escape the fact that it looks and feels like a room, rather than a Kingdom, a castle, a battlefield, a prison, or even a theatre. Of course, good drama survives in spite of whatever locale you put it in, but it is worth noting. LaGrande’s work is no exception to the stated rule. The play is staged in a three-quarter round, with actors entering from every conceivable gully. Rarely is a conversation static, it constantly shifts to allow for audience visibility or to underpin the dynamism of a scene. Monologues and soliloquies are particularly well handled. Speeches will be addressed to the masses if a court is in session, Arthur’s ascent of the wall seems directed to all the hearts of the world, Philip the Bastard goes out of his way to engender kisses from nearby admiring ladies… the audience is never left feeling orphaned. It’s a pleasant hark back to the days of the groundlings. LaGrande’s addition of movement pieces to ‘King John’ make for interesting and informative bits of symbol-play. I’m not normally the biggest fan of unsolicited physical theatre, but here I found the offerings unobtrusive, and reasonably informative. All good, overall.
‘King John’ itself, independent of Hamlet Isn’t Dead, is a little wanting. As a historical it doesn’t match up to the grandeur of better known faire, as a drama removed of historical context it’s interesting, but with a muddled message. That said, it’s surprisingly not bad. Middle of the road Shakespeare is still Shakespeare, after all. And in the hands of a creative group of people, it’s a good look-in. Philip the Bastard is a defiantly strong character, almost crying out for his own play. And Arthur’s scene on top of the wall is a monologue I’m surprised I haven’t heard before, given it’s gentle innocence and powerful resonance. Hamlet Isn’t Dead have a done a great job of making ‘King John’ accessible and endearing. They make the weaker scenes work, and the stronger scenes pop. If the show were still running, I would encourage you to go and see it. Unfortunately, the show’s limited run has now ended. That said, Hamlet Isn’t Dead are constantly working on something, and I strongly advise you to follow them on their various social media in order to stay up to date with their performances. Past and present experience has shown them to be more than worth your time.
More information on Hamlet Isn’t Dead can be found at hamletisntdead.com, on their Facebook page (facebook.com/HamletIsntDead), or on their Twitter account (@HamletIsntDead)
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
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