KING JOHN has never stood out among Shakespeare's histories. And among performances of Shakespeare, the Mather Drama Society's production does not stand out either. But strong performances by Jon Isham as Phillip the Bastard and Alexander Coxe Pearson as King John hold the play together. The major strengths in director Katherine Ashton's cast offset the weaknesses in Shakespeare's work to make this King John worth seeing.
The play's main conflict stems from France's support of the pretender Arthur, who is John's nephew. Arthur has taken refuge across the Channel with his mother, and war is already brewing in the opening scenes. But the countries avoid full-scale war through a marriage between the Dauphin and King John's niece.
Things look rosy at the wedding until Cardinal Pandulph, the Papal Legate, orders France not to ally herself with England as long as John refuses to support the Church's choice for Archbishop of Canterbury. In the ensuing battle, John captures Arthur and orders Hubert, a faithful servant, to kill the boy. Hubert cannot bids him escape, claiming Arthur died in his sleep.
The King's advisers, suspecting foul play, defect to France before Hubert confesses to John that Arthur lives. When Arthur dies trying to escape, the nobles find his body outside the city gate and grow more incensed. The French invade England under the Dauphin's command, only to be beaten back. The nobles find it expedient to return to John's fold when they learn the Dauphin plans to kill them. By now the King is a broken man who dies of poison, the ever-loyal Phillip the Bastard by his side.
Isham sparkles in his role as bastard son of Richard Coeur de Lion, a true-hearted Englishman ready to defend King and country against all comers. He baits his enemies and prances and banters during his soliloquies in the first half of the play. Isham's natural improvisations establish a rapport with the audience, which surrounds the Mather House stage on three sides.
Unfortunately, Isham's Phillip spends a lot of his time in the second half doing battle, as the play's complications take a more serious turn. Shakespeare uses Phillip's moral rectitude as a foil for King John's growing deceitfulness.
AT THIS JUNCTURE, though, Pearson and King John take over as the most interesting characters on stage. While King John struggles with his own conscience--and a lust for power so strong that he orders his young nephew killed--Pearson projects paranoia and insecurity with shifting glances and frowning brows. Although partially excusable in an overly defensive king, Pearson's excessive shouting is out of place in his otherwise subtle portrayal.
As with all his histories, Shakespeare takes certain liberties with the actual course of events during King John's reign; he never mentions the Magna Carta, for instance. In trying to compress 30 years into an evening's entertainment, the playwright condenses many battles into slightly dull and strategy-filled second half. Aside from Pearson, the actors in this half seem unaware of the full motivation behind Shakespeare's lines.
Chris Bentley, for example, as the Dauphin has an opportunity to enliven the after-intermission malaise. Unfortunately he races through his lines, stands motionless on the stage, or follows a carefully prescribed path, and punctuates his speeches with jerky and forced gestures.
Clarity of expression, always an important consideration in a production of Shakespeare, seems to bother the supporting cast more than the leads. Faulty staging loses some lines to the dining hall windows, and other phrases disappeared down minor characters' throats.
King John addresses the disruptive effects of the tension between monarchy and the Catholic Church, and the pull of "Commodity" (convenience) against loyalty. Pearson aptly conveys this struggle and Isham provides striking and personable contrast. Unfortunately, unclear motivations in the supporting cast and unrevealing lines by Shakespeare leave a less entertaining second half.