PBS's `King John' is a lesson in how not to do Shakespeare

In Shakespeare's The Life and Death of King John (PBS, Friday, Jan. 11, 9 p.m. to 12 midnight), the mother of young Arthur spits out a phrase to describe the marriage of convenience between John and the King of France, who was supposed to champion her son's cause: ``Painted peace,'' she cries indignantly.

In Constance's mouth, and in Claire Bloom's reading of them, the words cut through everyone's merriment to reveal the empty show beneath it all. They linger, too, over this whole production, which is pretty with costumes and well-spoken words, but lacks the gristle to make a real peace (or war) from Shakespeare's doings.

Much has been written about these doings in Shakespeare's chronicle plays, of which this is one: that they are labored and too loaded with historical detail -- which accounts for the twilight fame this play enjoys. Hardly anyone undertakes it. And it would be altogether easy, sitting through director David Giles's presentation of it, to say, ``No wonder.'' But the fact is inescapable that a play of particular moral force and uncommon imagery stands in these vestments.

It should prove helpful, therefore, to understand why its force seldom comes forth in this effort.

For one thing, most of the people here really seem not to believe in the play. It looks as if actors and director and scenic designers took it for a costume drama with some beautiful language, impossible scenes, and artless contrivances. Something, in short, to be gotten through, if one were mounting a complete series of Shakespeare plays.

True, almost the entire Part 1 represents an enormous challenge, what with its back-and-forth colloquies between ``England'' and ``France,'' and then the Roman Catholic Church's using ``the curse that money may buy out'' to intimidate them both. The scene before the wall of the besieged city is the kind of stuff that Monty Python lampoons in ``In Search of the Holy Grail.''

I was disappointed to see the utter lack of imagination in confronting these challenges. Can it be enough, after all, to have yet another Shakespeare play set to war drums and trumpets, and not much real insight? The language here is as large and poetic as any Shakespeare ever wrote. It certainly calls for somehing more than the fleur-de-lis sky backdrops and stuffed robes we get here.

One longs to see the company strip away all this museum storehouse of materiel and get down to the play's rich marrow.

That happens now and again, mostly when Claire Bloom is about, giving us her obsessed, intelligent Constance. So, too, do we get lucid flashes from George Costigan as a Philip the Bastard who speaks as though fresh from Liverpool's pubs, yet makes the anachronism work. But the late Leonard Rossiter is not at his best in the title role. And the two child princes seem to be delivering high school valedictory addresses in their most important speeches.

Still, nitpicking about this or that performance misses the heart of the issue: that Giles should have set about to do this work as one does a brand new opera, full of wonderful dissonances and undiscovered beauties. Each line should have been read for clues to a world unimagined.

I kept thinking -- as I watched this historically correct reading -- of a ``Pericles'' done last year in Boston by the young American director Peter Sellars. There is another much ignored work, one that is frequently maligned. Sellars, on the other hand, mined it for genius and strange, beautiful undercurrents.

He let the work take its natural time of hours; and not a moment was wasted.

In this ``King John,'' Giles is too hasty to set up scenes and breeze through them, as though they can be tossed off. Strangely, it is this very hurry that makes the play seem ``as tedious as a twice-told tale vexing the ear of a drowsy man,'' to borrow a phrase from Philip.

And all the while, you are marveling at Shakespeare's language, getting a trifle angry that he is not here accorded the same treatment routinely given so-called contemporary playwrights. Which is to say that his work is mounted like a stuffed piece of history, instead of a deep psychological study of the strains and terrors that lurk beneath every ``painted peace.''

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