King John is the Shakespeare play that no one likes, and for good reason. Not only are there no heroes, there isn’t even a place for your sympathies to engage. Listening to it is like watching players of an unknown game  – you know there are rules and people are rooting, cheering, talking trash and gnashing their teeth, but who is winning and what side you should take is entirely unclear. And even if you do arbitrarily choose a side, it is quickly revealed to be the wrong one.

England and France are, unsurprisingly, at each other’s throats as the play begins. Philip, the King of France, and John, King of England, are fighting over a rival claim to the English crown. John’s older brother had a son (optimistically named Arthur) and his mom, Constance, is pushing him forward with France’s help. But John has already been the de facto King during much of his brother Richard’s reign and has been crowned. John has the support of his mother, the indomitable Eleanor of Aquitaine, and appears to be strong and capable. The King of France and his son the Dauphin are also putting up a display of competence and forcefulness. When Constance, Eleanor, the Duke of Austria and the late king Richard’s illegitimate son (called Philip the Bastard, given to much talk and the odd, rambling monologue) get into a shouting match, Lewis the Dauphin shuts them all up with “women and fools, break off your conference.” After some wrangling, it’s agreed that Lewis and Blanch, John’s niece, are to get married, and all is well.

Then up pops Cardinal Pandulph, the papal legate. He picks a fight with John and bullies King Philip into reviving the hostilities. And so on. Throughout the complicated plot, the likability of the characters shifts along with their fortunes. Philip the Bastard, who gives away his right to his legal father’s estate in order to claim what he regards as the more honorable and glorious parentage of King Richard, looks like he’s going to be a heroic figure, but he turns out to be rather silly figure who is not as clever as he thinks he is and is quickly given by John the less than glorious job of pillaging churches. John himself is as darkly ambiguous a character as any in Shakespeare. Having captured his nephew Arthur, he immediately orders his death in one of the most chilling scenes in Shakespearean or any other drama. John’s dialog here is a window into a really dark space and you’re ready for a picture of unrelenting evil, but it doesn’t really quite shape up that way. Not quite. He’s referred to later as “great King John”, his son Prince Henry is genuinely grief-stricken when his father lies ill, and the nobles, alienated by the death of Arthur, soon come back after realizing that Lewis the Dauphin means to double cross them. Shakespeare gives John some great speeches, a unique verbal style and a curiously engaging sense of humor, fearlessness in the face of the most formidable threats – and a twisted, evil streak, and a tortured soul, and sudden moments of rank cowardice.

It takes a rare actor to tie all that up effectively. Michael Hordern’s 1953 performance of the part at the Old Vic was widely praised, and he recreates it in this recording. Hordern had carved a niche out playing fussy old men – Polonius, Menenius, an elderly version of Capulet for the BBC Shakespeare series, etc, and he filled these roles with bellowing, grumbling competence. But he kept in his pocket, for projects that engaged him, a breathtaking skill in characterization and a powerhouse comic delivery. Ignoring the obvious triumphs, Jacob Marley to Alastair Sim’s Scrooge, or Senex in the film version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, take a closer look at some hidden gems: Ashe, the gay communist recruiter in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, keeping his composure in the midst of a humiliating dismissal; the oily statesman Granville in Khartoum who has no illusions and is in the game for his quiet amusement; or a Cicero in the epic flop Cleopatra, little more than a cameo, yet conveying hauntingly his awareness that the republic is dead for good. His masterpiece, dare I say – the short film by Jonathan Miller, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, as a pitiably solipsistic academic whose protective detachment from the world is shattered by something he can’t explain. I should also add his Harpagon in Moliere’s The Miser for radio whose avarice pulses almost audibly through his veins. Unforgettable is the simple confidence with which he uses his greed as an unanswerable argument to all disputes.

Hordern is brilliant as King John, hitting all the points in this complicated figure – thankfully, even in his weakest moments nurturing a few embers of Plantagenet fire. Margaretta Scott as Constance does a good job of not letting the part get away from her. Constance wails and moans and rants a lot, and her scenes can be a trial to get through, but Scott gives them tragic dignity without self-indulgent histrionics. Anthony Jacobs makes Cardinal Pandulph an icily ruthless expert in realpolitik, while Toby Robertson exposes King Philip’s soft center admirably. Richard Marquand doesn’t quite make the leap between Lewis the Dauphin’s dewy-eyed youth and coolly competent professional (he part as written goes back and forth!) Although Anthony Jacobs is also credited as Prince Henry, it is clearly not him in the role and unless my ears deceive me, it is none other than a very young Derek Jacobi, who is in several of the plays. Can’t prove it, but I’d bet on it.

David Buck, as Philip the Bastard, makes me wish Richard Burton had recorded his version of the role. Buck, who in a few months would play the insolent, rakish servant Yasha in the TV version of the Cherry Orchard directed by Michel Saint-Denis would seem to be an excellent choice for the role. Perhaps it’s just as well that Buck misses that extra bit of charisma to put the part over like a movie star – I’m not sure after all that we’re supposed to like him. Or anyone.

King John with Michael Hordern, Margaretta Scott, David Buck, Toby Robertson, Anthony Jacobs, Richard Marquand.

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