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Play-reading report: King John – Edinburgh, 13th March

I was rather nervous yesterday when the play-reading group gathered to read King John.  When I had edited the play to create our version, and when I’d read it with my partner for proof-reading (and to get our tongues around the English) as we always do before the play-reading, I’m afraid to say we found it rather boring – particularly Act One and Two – too many long speeches; not enough drama.

In a group play-reading, King John came alive, and, as one of the players nearly said: “It’s nice to play a Shakespeare play where you don’t know what’s going to happen.” I don’t suppose I should tell you this, but another of the players said: “It is fantastic to be part of this cutting-edge Shakespeare interaction!”, but I better not mention that in case you think we’re getting too pleased with ourselves!

Normally we don’t say too much about the plot of the play we’re reading as usually everyone knows it, but King John  does  seem to be somewhat forgotten, so we’ll make an exception and tell you a bit about it.

King John – the play:

Shakespeare scholars seem to be divided as to the date of the play. The argument seems to boil down to whether Shakespeare’s play is derived from The Troublesome Reigne of John King of England, or whether it is the other way around.  In the first case, the date is thought to be around 1596. In the second case, the play is much earlier, probably around 1590. I am not competent to judge which came first.

However, I’m very happy to nail my mast to the early 1590s, maybe 1590, for a number of reasons:

  • There’s a lot or Armada (1588) type talk, as well as invasion-of-Britain thoughts, trouble with the Catholic church, etc
  • The plot device of Hubert’s having the King’s warrant for the murder of Arthur (A4S2) is very reminiscent of Queen Elizabeth and William Davidson’s contretemps over the warrant for the execution of Mary Queen of Scots (1587).
  • The strong message that English nobles should not revolt against their monarch, is again very relevant to the potential rebellions in 1587 and 1588.

These would all be more strongly in audience’s minds in 1590 than in 1596.

But for me, the killer blow is that the structure of the play, and even the language, reads and feels like Shaksepeare as an early playwright. Would he be writing a play like this in 1596, after A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Richard II, or just before Henry IV Part II don’t think his fellow-actors in The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, would have put up with it!

The play itself is more of a chronicle than a play. In a similar way to Henry Vth, it tells the story of King John’s invasion of France; then France’s invasion of England; the rebellion of Lords against John, due to the murder of innocent Arthur, John’s nephew, and claimant of the crown; and the defeat of the French and the death of John. It is a story of politics and the devious behaviour of politicians. It does not have a strongly-structured plot, leading to a satisfying resolution. Note that Magna Carta, which we remember today, as signed by King John, doesn’t get a mention.

In this chronicle there’s some great scenes, some wonderful language and some great characters:

And these are only the highlights! There’s some great stuff in this play, but you’re unlikely to see many productions, though Trevor Nunn is rumoured to be directing it this year. If you can’t wait for that, it’s a great play for a play-reading, and you only need to get 6 – 11 people together to playread it – see:

Our play-reading of King John:

I started by saying that I was nervous about this play-reading. I thought it might be a flop. But no, it was a success! Perhaps not so much fun as the plays of Shakespeare’s wonderful middle period at The Lord Chamberlain’s Men / The King’s Men, but great fun nevertheless, perhaps particularly because none of us knew the play particularly well.  Everyone read rather well, with the first reader of Philip_the_Bastard doing really well – it’s a great part.

Why the ‘first’ reader? Well we rather tested our casting software with this play-reading. First, more people turned up than planned, but we were able to add an extra person to the casting, taking us up to 9 players – just like that!. Then, unfortunately, someone could only stay for the first half of the play-reading, so we re-cast the play after the interval for only 8 – what we had originally planned.

And the technological tests didn’t stop there. One of the players wanted to test if we could really play-read via Skype, so before the play-reading I went away into my study and we play-read, via Skype, the  Romeo and Juliet balcony scene (go to https://players-shakespeare.com/published-mffev5-extracts/  and click on ‘Romeo and Juliet (A2s2, A3S4 in the table). I was expecting some technological lag between speeches, but it all worked really well. We’re planning to try out incorporating a US-based play-reader in our next play-reading – any volunteers for Love’s Labours Lost on 10th April?

We’ve also tightened up our play-reading pages so they’re much easier to use, without so much changing of pages. We’ve only got two plays in that new format so far, but we’ll be adopting it for future plays (and converting the old ones). We think it’s rather good. You can try out the new format with:

And now we move on to Love’s Labours Lost, which should be published towards the beginning of April, and we’re planning to play-read it on 10th April.

Let’s Play-read!

‘The Director’,
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