Through March 23|
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF KING JOHN The New Phoenix Theatre Company
Not “uneasy lies the head who wears the crown,” but “uneasy lies the heads around the crown.”
The New Phoenix Theatre is staging Lawrence Gregory Smith’s version of Shakespeare’s “The Life and Death of King John.”
He’s best known as the king who screwed things up so badly in English politics that he had to weaken the throne to the nobles with the Magna Carta.
As king, he even lost the Crown Jewels of the day.
He’s also a central figure in the Robin Hood tales, the prince who wanted to get rid of his brother King Richard and take the throne.
As a Plantagenet, John was a part of the family’s poisonous succession struggles at a time when it mattered who was in the line of succession, since kings ruled rather than reigned.
John became king when his older brother, Richard the Lionheart, was fatally wounded in battle.
That meant bypassing his young nephew, Arthur (Gianna Palermo) who had a much better claim to the throne, as the heir to John’s older brother Geoffrey.
This is the time of the long wars with France over the French trying to seize lands in their country from the English.
The wars go back to French weakness and the richest noble of her time and her vast and profitable lands in France, John’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Sarielys Matos).
Complicating it all was that she had been married to King Louis VII of France before she was married to John’s father, King Henry II.
It was a quirk of the day that she continued to hold her inheritance when women were basically not allowed to own anything.
If you want another look at this situation, try James Goldman’s “The Lion in Winter” with its occasional local stagings.
“King John” isn’t a play done very often, carrying with it an image as one of Shakespeare’s earliest, weakest plays, one so weak it, apparently, wasn’t staged until a century and a half after it was written.
What Smith did to make this production work so successfully was slash down the story and the cast and put a sexually diverse cast in multiple roles, even Connor Caso’s King.
It’s all hard to follow.
The history of the time is hard to follow because so much has changed, from royal succession struggles to French history to the ability of the Pope to force kings to submit to papal authority, here represented by Cardinal Pandulph (Matos), the legate.
The best you can do is just sit back and relax and watch the deadly course of history, at least as far as the very politically conscious Shakespeare was willing to tell the tale, in a time when succession issues cost people lives.
He could stress the willingness of people around a ruler to kill when asked by the king.
Here, John wants his nephew, Prince Arthur, killed and a close aide agrees and then weakens.
John would have known, since his father had off-handedly ordered the murder of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, and four knights rode off and killed the churchman.
There are really three choices here: Should you see “The Life and Death of King John”?
It is very much worth seeing.
Should you look up political histories of John’s day?
You would probably be better off the look for a movie showing of some version of “Robin Hood,” since all versions seem to tell the tales of the lethal nature of royal succession troubles.
And, keep track of royal associate Hubert (Eric Mowery) and see what people are willing to do to curry favor with great men, then and now, even if he didn’t do as the king wanted.
Smith has some strong performers, Matos, Caso and Palermo.
Power has value and risk.
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