The Life and Death of KING JOHN

Unitec Dance Studios, Entry One, Carrington Rd, Auckland

29/03/2007 - 07/04/2007

Production Details

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Jacque Drew
Designer: John Parker
Voice tutor: Kirsty O’Sullivan

“Mad world! Mad Kings! Mad composition!”

“What if the military deployed an elite storytelling unit to areas of conflict? What if this unit told a story about the futility and madness of war as a means of resolving conflict? What if the audience heard the story and were moved to change?”

These were some of the questions director Jacque Drew posed for the cast and designers in preparation for staging a play that is rarely performed (perhaps never before in New Zealand) because of its complexity – Shakespeare’s seldom-seen first history play ‘King John’.

Drew, an American, commented, “The Life and Death of King John is an exploration of the reign of what historians have called “England’s worst King”. His rein was filled with conflict, breeding war after war based on rash decisions and partisan politics. Fast forward to 2007. Sound familiar?”

Given the current state of world politics, it is a fitting work to be offered to Auckland audiences outdoors in the twilight of summer.

The Life and Death of King John is a complex socio-political snapshot of an inept ruler desperately trying to maintain his authority by waging an unjust war, and contains some of the Bard’s sharpest, wittiest, most quotable dialogue.

‘Strong reasons make strange actions” suggests a philosophical pretender to the English throne. That tasty little quote is uttered by Lewis, the son of the French King Philip, who, through obscure marital connections, has laid legal claim to the country of England.

It is not an easy play to stage, veering from long scenes in which diplomats argue over the fates of England and France, to frighteningly tense bits such as when a young prince is sentenced to have his eyes burned out with a red-hot poker.

Veteran theatre designer John Parker has been tutoring and collaborating with the students of the Graduate Diploma in Design to realise the design elements for this unique outdoor performance.

In preparing the actors, Drew has used methodology seldom seen in NZ theatre – Tadashi Suzuki’s methods and echoes of Japanese theatre forms: Butoh, Noh and Kabuki.

“As a theatre artist I believe that storytelling, particularly in the form of theatre, has the power to transform. It appeals to our intellect, our emotion, and our senses. It illustrates the essence of our humanity.” Drew suggests. “It is my premise that one day our soldiers will become artist/warriors, occupying areas of conflict with an assault of pure humanity, leaving consolidated communities in their wake, filled with the inspiration to overcome conflicts without resorting to war. Naïve? Perhaps. Simplistic? Sure. Possible? Why not?”

Bring a blanket, the mozzie spray, a picnic, and wear some layers (dress for the weather) to enjoy the end of summer, Shakespeare style.

The Life and Death of King John (Year 3 Acting)
Thursday 29 March to Saturday April 7 at 7pm. (not including April 1 or April 6)
Matinees: Saturday 31 March and April 7 at 2pm
Venue: Outside on Campus grounds (behind Building 202, Entry One Carrington Rd, Pt Chevalier)

Bookings through iTICKET. (09) 361 1000

Prices and Booking Information

Adults $17 Concession $12 (Community Services Cardholders) Students $5 (with Student ID) Booking fees: Online: $1.99 per booking (regardless of number of tickets) Phone: $4.98 per booking (regardless of number of tickets) Online and phone booking fee (if paid by Credit Card) includes free venue pickup of tickets, or free mailing of tickets to you if time permits. Other payment options: You can pay by cheque or EFTPOS at any NZ Postshop. NZ Postshop will charge $2.00 for this service. Online: Phone: (09) 361 1000

Arthur, Duke of Brittany (Sarah Graham)
Blanche of Spain (Nicole Jorgensen)
Cardinal Pandulph (Andrew Ford)
Chatillon, French Ambassador (Francis Mountjoy)
Constance (Victoria Schmidt)
Earl of Essex (Peter Coates)
Earl of Pembroke (Colin Garlick)
Earl of Salisbury (Christopher Tempest)
Herbert, citizen of Angiers (Mike Ginn)
Hubert (Mitch Baker)
King John (Devlin Lewis)
Lady Faulconbridge (Solitaire Mahmoud)
Lewis, the Dauphin (Asa Campbell)
Limoges, Duke of Austria (Matthew Norton)
Peter of Pomfret and "Death" (Jacqui Nauman)
Philip, King of France (Jonathan Bright)
Philip, the Bastard (Joel Herbert)
Queen Eleanor (Ema Barton)
Robert Faulconbridge (Edward Clendon)
The Lord Bigot (Jatinder Singh)

Theatre ,

Mad King John’s twisted logic

Review by Nik Smythe 31st Mar 2007

Shakespeare’s first history play, about the chaotic fracas surrounding the dubious appointment of John to the throne of England after the death of his brother Richard I, around the early 13th century, is not his best known work.  This may be in part because, although there are moments of trademark brilliance, the script seems a little patchy, oddly timed.  Or else it’s that there isn’t as much sex and debauchery as there is in the more popular tragedies.

As conceptualised by director Jacquie Drew, the story is told by the cast, in character as an elite military ‘storytelling unit’ – a pseudo-Brechtian play-within-a play of sorts.  While much of the style is borrowed from classical and modern Japanese theatre forms, the impression I have is of actually of being in the playroom of giant invisible children playing war games with toy soldiers (the cast) – which itself is analogous to the strategy room of a king and his generals. 

The actors maintain rigid poses, not unlike dressed-up action figures, and their speech is more robotic than naturalistic.  They more or less relentlessly bark their information, with some inflection and emotion, but always assertive – even as King Philip (Jonathan Bright) assertively declares ‘I am perplexed and don’t know what to say!’  This production is not designed to show off the cast’s ability to act. 

Nevertheless some performances succeed in eliciting an emotional reaction.  King John himself is played with believably psychotic tendencies by Devlin Bishop.  Both Constance (Victoria Schmidt), and her (and Richard I’s) son Arthur (Sarah Graham), are very well cast.  Mitch Baker’s Hubert is kind and loyal, and racked with dilemma as his loyalty is put to the ultimate test when King John orders him to murder young Arthur.

On the technical side, Kirsty O’Sullivan’s voice tutorship must be applauded.  The vocals in outdoor theatre can often be a shortcoming but we heard every word.  Any comprehension issues are not due to the speech being unclear or inaudible – that’s just Shakespeare.  Overall the performances from this 3rd year acting class are strong, albeit very stylised.

The scenes of battle are choreographed, ritualistic and entirely symbolic.  No blows are seen, in fact there is little physical contact between characters throughout the play.  The only one with physical fluidity is the original character (i.e. not in Shakepeare’s dramatis personae) of Death (Jacqui Nauman), who silently stalks the action in her black mask and extended ninja suit, dealing out mortality from a quiver of white crosses.  She’s a lethal invisible insect; at the same time somehow she seems noble and just.

Jacque Drew’s direction is clearly driven by ideas and concepts.  We’re not being made to sympathise through emotional evidence; rather this elite troop of storytellers are presenting the facts to illustrate the madness of certain military principles.  Naturalism hasn’t merely not been focussed on, it has been consciously replaced with an abstract universe, oddly detached from our immediate reality. 

That said, the parallel between mad King John’s twisted logic and dangerously impulsive method of leadership and a certain high-profile world leader of our time, is not lost on us.

Does it work?  This is a genuinely interesting production in which the audience is required to work a fair bit just to follow the plot.  To work effectively as a tool – this military division presenting this timeless tale so that we common folk reflect upon our own lives – it really would be necessary to make it more accessible.  The contrasting energy of the closing number, where all the dead characters come back on as normal people, embracing each other, ally and enemy alike, singing along to Gary Jules’ ‘Mad World’, is a little bit of what I’m talking about, even though I don’t personally care much for that bit.  

As abstract as the production is, it must be mentioned that the little black beetles which rained on the audience, stunned by the lights, gave a little realism to the mediaeval setting of the script.


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