King John: A play for all time?

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Having had a period of reflection after seeing Maria Aberg’s King John at the Swan Theatre, it occurs to me how its forceful message about a-nationalism is not so very distant from the two, arguably, greatest Victorian productions of the play by William Charles Macready (1840s-1850s) and Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1899).

Thinking, as I have in these blogs, about Victorian spectacular Shakespeare, I am reminded that both Macready and Tree – around fifty years apart – mounted visually superb King Johns with ‘accurate’ architectural settings and carefully researched costumes.

But rather like the vacant nationalism and visual warfare against consumerism in Aberg’s jubilee-year adaptation, Macready’s production was a plea for religious tolerance in a period of fierce anti-Catholicism, just as Tree’s was a nationalistic  campaign in the year the second Boer War began.

William Charles Macready’s King John, which was to be revived on numerous occasions for several decades (not just by Macready), first opened in 1842 at Drury Lane Theatre. Still sore from the Catholic Emancipation in 1829, and the Oxford Movement in the 1830s, London audiences took the production as a perfect opportunity to throw scorn in the way of Cardinal Pandulph and the Pope. Later, when the production was revived, the reactions were even more shocking, for the Catholic hierarchy had been re-established in England in September 1850. Audiences applauded John’s anti-papal rant, and hurled invective at the papal legate. But all of this, for Macready, came as a surprise; Macready saw King John as a story about a man who rejects faith itself and is punished for his pride. So the great scene in which John is crowned by Pandulph was fore-grounded, and Macready’s John felt his conscience restored to him. Despite the nobility of Macready’s sentiments here, he notes in his diary that ‘part of the audience came to the play, not to see it, but to act themselves in a foolish demonstration of hostility of Papistry’ (1851).

Some costumes for Macready's King John

Fast-forward to the end of the century, and such anti-Catholicism – though still present – had cooled somewhat. Bigger problems faced the people of Great Britain than the Church of Rome. Now, the passages of nationalism were paramount, for the Boer War had just broken out in South Africa and Joseph Chamberlain,  the Secretary of State for the Colonies, went to Her Majesty’s Theatre on the night of 20th September 1899 to be reminded why ‘this England’ was not a nation to be defeated.

Lewis Waller as Falconbridge

He was certainly not disappointed, for Lewis Waller’s Falconbridge – the sole representative of national pride in the face of illegitimacy, war and confusion – ‘commanded the applause of the house, and as the play went on his development of character was a triumph of histrionic art’ (Glasgow Herald, 1899).


Battle scene in Tree's King John

Given that Aberg’s recent production is at once culturally pertinent and controversial, it strikes me that this play lends itself to particular moments in history. In some ways, then, we can think of King John as appearing in times of national crisis, whether that’s a crisis of war, intolerance or nationalistic apathy and recession.

What are your thoughts? Please do leave responses in the comments section.


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Author:Anjna Chouhan

Anjna is Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
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  • Pam

    Ok, Richard II may have had its faults but I liked the spareness of cast.  I also felt it got to the essence of Richard, who from the age of 10 had been told he was the nearest thing to God on Earth, so that in giving up the crown he was betraying a sacred trust, hence the fear and reluctance to let it go.

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