|Cast of Fixing King John (photo: Bret Brookshire)|
by Michael Meigs
Kirk Lynn's script isn't Shakespeare. Fixing King John is a tight, fast story with dialogue full of fucking obscenities, one suited not for PBS but maybe to HBO.
E. Jason Liebrecht creates King John as an edgy, angry, powerful capo with the force of Jimmy Cagney and the morals of Tony Soprano.
Director Madge Darlington puts the Rude Mechs' staging into the confined space of their Off-Shoot rehearsal studio behind the Off-Center at 2211A Hidalgo Street in Austin. Audience members -- no, make that spectators, practically participants -- arrive to find the big room already milling with cast members in casual contemporary dress.
The seating is equally casual around the central space, which has the feel of a gym or a space for a cage fight. Risers on two sides of it feature a couple of high-placed rows of chairs for conventional seating with wide platforms below them, and across the playing space are wooden towers with plywood platforms to accommodate watchers. It's a makeshift settle-where-you-wish assemblage directly reminiscent of the Mechs' re-staging of Dionysus in 69 here in 2009 and 2012.
Lynn's reworking of the little-read (and less-acted) Shakespeare hjistory play, written about 1590 but not mentioned in contemporary accounts or published until the 1623 Folio, is a drastic but coherent restructuring. He reduces a cast of 24 characters to one of 10, and he so reworks relations and plot elements that even if you'd actually read this neglected work you might not recognize it.
And the language! Though Lynn's first draft methodically rendered the original verse into pungent contemporary speech, his revisions and remakings fixed it so parallelisms all but disappeared. Take this example, from the opening scene:
by William Shakespeare
|Fixing King John
by Kirk Lynn
| Act I, Scene I, lines 1-25
Philip of France, in right and true behalf
Of thy deceased brother Geffrey’s son,
Arthur Plantagenet, lays most lawful claim
To this fair island and the territories,
To Ireland, Poictiers, Anjou, Touraine, Maine,
Desiring thee to lay aside the sword
Which sways usurpingly these several titles,
And put the same into young Arthur’s hand,
Thy nephew and right royal sovereign.
What follows if we disallow of this?
The proud control of fierce and bloody war,
To enforce these rights so forcibly withheld.
Here have we war for war and blood for blood,
Controlment for controlment: so answer France.
Then take my King’s defiance from my mouth,
The farthest limit of my embassy.
Bear mine to him, and so depart in peace.
Be thou as lightning in the eyes of France;
For ere thou canst report, I will be there;
The thunder of my cannon shall be heard.
So hence! Be thou the trumpet of our wrath,
And sullen presage of your own decay.
An honorable conduct let him have.
Pembroke, look to’t. Farewell, Chatillion.
Exeunt Chatillion and Pembroke.
|Act I, Scene I |
Everything you see is KING JOHN'S castle. And lookit,KING JOHN is on his throne. He looks gooood. He's thehome team along with his mom, QUEEN ELINOR, and PEMBROKE, and anyone else you see. Anyone except that slick DAUPHIN, who's on a visit from France.
[. . . skipping to pg 2, from line 5]
[. . .] my father sent me here to tell you this:Step aside! Stop pretending to be the great King of England, because really—truly it’s your nephew, Arfur, who has the most reason to pretend that game. Whoop! We're telling you to step aside and let Arfur be the next King - of England, Ireland, Poitiers, Anjou, Touraine, Maine and all that. All that. And now forget I was the King of France, pretending - and now pretend I’m every single one of the citizens who live in every single one of those shitholes in your kingdom I just listed, paying taxes, sleeping, making love on one another, dying and all that and listen as we say to you: Take off your hat. Take off your hat and put it on Arfur’s head. We’ll all be happier when you do.
If Arfur wants my crown he’s gonna hafta come back from the grave and chop off my head to get it, ‘cause I’ll kill a motherfucker today just for scheduling a thought like that tomorrow. Fuck Arfur. Tell Philip that. Then what?
Total fucking all-out war. Whoop, whoop! And it’s not just gonna be people dressed in high fashion from France coming at you with army swords. No. Cuz we’re not trying to take the throne from England. We’re just trying to give it to the best English guy for the job. So you’re gonna have people attacking you that dress like you, and talk like you, and look like you, and cousins, and nephews, and sisters, and anybody who ever disagreed with a tax, or a law, or a decree they didn’t like coming after you. So you can see, that’s a hard fucking war to win.
All right. You tell France I just said, ‘All right.’ What’s that in French? Just to say, ‘Great. Let’s do it. Fuck you. No big deal.’ I ain’t afraid to kill French people. I ain’t afraid to kill ANYBODY that comes after me. Say that to Philip. Like, no big deal. All right. What’s that in French? Like, ‘No biggie.’ You gotta a phrase for that?
Look in my mouth. You imagine you’re a great King? You got a good imagination. Look in my mouth and see my king’s response pouring out at you like a sewer. The nastiest shit you can imagine just pumping from my heart, up outta my mouth all over your stupid costume and your fake throne and filling up this fucking wayside inn you call a castle till you drown in our bile. Fuck you, too.
I want you outta my country quick like lightning, and by the time you get home to your little fucking poodle farm you’re gonna hear the thunder of my cannons blowing up your home, your mom, your dad, your brothers and sisters, your dog. BOOM. You’re like the tip of the sword I’m gonna put in King Philip's mouth and keep pushing ‘til he feels the hilt of it on his chin.
Shut up, Pembroke. I'm gonna trust you with this snake.Make sure he gets aimed straight back to France, as quick as can be. And Dauphin? Remember what I said. 'Let’s do it. Fuck you. No big deal.'
See you later, DAUPHIN. See you later, PEMBROKE.
Lynn describes his composition process in a thoughtful note in the program, and on their website the Mechs in their characteristic irreverent, ironic style state, "In some ways, we're offering you a more authentic experience of what a new Shakespeare play might be like than an actual Shakespeare play. In other ways, not so much." After all, Elizabethan playwrights borrowed liberally from one another and freely reworked earlier works; G.B. Harrison identifies Shakespeare's source as a two-part anonymous work printed in 1591 titled The Troublesome Raigne of John King of England and reprinted in 1611 with the addition of the words 'Written by W. Sh.' -- "a dishonest attempt to pass it off as Shakespeare's work." (Maybe much of it was Shakespeare's work, considering that Harrison writes at length about the uneven quality of the accepted text of King John.)
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