“King John” is one of the weaker plays of Shakespeare’s, and the histories already receive a lot less attention than the tragedies and comedies, so adaptations and stagings are comparatively rare. The play itself has some strong elements (a few compelling characters and scenes), and this adaptation does its best to focus on those while remaining highly faithful to the original text, for better or worse.
The cast is strong, particularly Graham Abbey in a show-stealing performance as Phillip the Bastard, and also Wayne Best as Hubert. Tom McCamus also does good work as the eponymous role, particularly in emphasising some of the comic aspects.
George Orwell once said of the play that “When I had read it as a boy it seemed to me archaic, something dug out of a history book and not having anything to do with our own time…when I saw it acted, what with its intrigues and doublecrossings, non-aggression pacts, quislings, people changing sides in the middle of a battle, and what-not, it seemed to me extraordinarily up to date”. While he said that seventy-five ago, I agree that the nature of the politics in the play is relatively timeless. Where I think director Barry Avrich was particularly clever was not just in what emotional beats he chose the performers to emphasise, helping focus the play not just on that timeless realpolitik, but on the specific quirks of the characters and their interactions that endears them to the audience, instead of just making them archetypes to displace frustration with politics onto.
While Graham Abbey’s performance as Phillip the Bastard is easily the most successful part of the adaptation, the specifically most captivating scene I’d have to say was the extended confrontation and discussion between Wayne Best’s Hubert and Noah Jalava’s Arthur. Best does his best, which turns out to be quite fantastic, and Javala acts with a passion I was surprised a child of his age could muster. Their scene there is spell-bending stuff.
The play is inherently flawed enough that any relatively faithful adaptation is going to lag and never really excel as a singular piece, but some clever directorial choices and a talented cast make this adaptation well worth watching. I give it three and a half vials of poison, and a puppy-dog.