King John Prep
Day 4: With all my heart I thank thee for my father!
This is part of a series on preparing my role for a ShakesBEERience reading of King John.
SPOILER: The article below reveals who the Bastard’s father in King John is.
As I noted at the end of my post regarding scansion, with only my character’s own lines to go on there are some crucial bits of information missing – most crucially, the identity of his biological father. Towards the end of the first scene of the play the Bastard’s mother, Lady Faulconbridge, admits who the father is. And from shortly thereafter the Bastard’s lines change from erratic, often-weak-ending, irregular lines, to a steady stream of confident iambs.
But until our first rehearsal on Sunday, I had only the cue line – “To make room for him in my husband’s bed” – and none of the preceding line giving the name and explanation of who the father was. I had my own character’s reaction, which is immediately positive, impressed, etc. I even knew a name, “Richard,” but without context that one name didn’t mean much. My historical knowledge of the monarchy wasn’t strong enough to make any particular connection between John and a Richard. And I mentioned in my introduction, I have never read the play and stopped myself short before reading the Wikipedia article on it; before Sunday, I hadn’t much more than a foggy idea what century the play was taking place in, much less who the major characters were.
There you have the context for Sunday night’s rehearsal – at least, my experience of it: next to no knowledge of the play, no knowledge of who King John was or when he lived, no knowledge of my own character’s historical significance or even reality (if any) – and most importantly, at least from the character’s point of view, no knowledge of the father. And Andrew the actor shared that critical point of ignorance with the character.
Sunday night, our first (of two) rehearsals for the King John ShakesBEERience. A group of actors, each holding in hand a completely different version of a play, each script containing only one character’s lines. Only one person in the room held the full document.
As we began to read I can see the wheels turning for my fellow actors, and I can feel them turning in my own mind. We are listening hard, and busily constructing for ourselves a narrative, joining the lines given by others with the sparse information we have in our own sides.
In the first few lines of the play I begin to get a sense for where we are historically, and what the general problem of the play is: an issue over succession, with a possible usurpation of the throne, and interference from a foreign throne thrown in to spice things up. This all washes over me as I (the actor) grasp at straws, trying to tie the people I hear speaking – King John, a lady name Elinor – to historical figures. But I can’t give this mystery (of where we are historically and who these people are) my full attention; I am preoccupied by another, personal question: who is my father?
And then, very quickly, I hear someone announcing that somebody has arrived with a strange suit to plead before the court. Just as I’m putting it together that this probably references my own entrance, I hear the cue: “Let them approach,” – that’s my entrance – and then, soon enough: “What men are you?” The cue for my first line!
From that point on, the actor’s question – who is the Bastard’s father? – subsides, because I’m more worried about delivering these lines, and discovering things, such as: there isn’t much room in between lines before another cue spurs me to speak, and who to speak to, and who that person is. But the Bastard won’t forget the question even if the actor has: “Who is my father?” is the unspoken question behind his action in the first scene, from the decision he makes to give up his inheritance to each little quip he delivers to the audience at the expense of the other players in the scene.
And then the stage is cleared, and Lady Faulconbridge, the Bastard’s mother, enters. The question now comes out without equivocation: “To whom am I beholding for these limbs?” At this point the question comes crashing back in to actor mind, just as it sits at the front of the Bastard’s mind, as he scolds, cajoles, and begs of his mother for an answer.
Here’s a bit of my cue script, with the cue lines bold in brackets – i.e. I speak the unemphasized text:
Then, good my mother, let me know my father; Some proper man, I hope: who was it, mother? [Hast thou denied thyself a Faulconbridge?] As faithfully as I deny the devil. [To make room for him in my husband's bed.] Now, by this light, were I to get again, Madam, I would not wish a better father.
There’s a great deal of asking before this final bit, and what turns the tide in my favor is my answer to her question above, “Hast thou denied…” As soon as I give that next line, she returns the name of the father.
Oh, that line felt like a real oath I was swearing as I said it, with full knowledge that it would immediately reveal the question I’d been asking since the beginning of the night:
As faithfully as I deny the devil.
And then she said it. And maybe somebody more familiar with the history of the English monarchy would have made a guess beforehand, but I was in the dark.
But once she said the name, I didn’t have to puzzle over it; in odd coincedence, I was brought up on the tales of Robin Hood, and in our modern conception, that folk hero inhabits a very specific historical period, and was associated with a very particular King and with a very particular evil brother of his.
Said Lady Faulconbridge:
King Richard Coeur-de-lion was thy father: By long and vehement suit I was seduced To make room for him in my husband's bed.
Suddenly, in that moment, actor Andrew felt a rush of adrenaline and accompanying surge in heartbeat that fit very well with what the Bastard might be feeling: Richard the Lion-Heart is my father!
The revelation shocked me deep enough that it took me a moment to hear the cue line. “Now, by this light, were I to get again,” came late, after a pause. I was pausing to reflect, and so was the Bastard: Andrew putting together King John, the title character of this play and the Bastard’s liege lord, with the evil brother who tries to steal King Richard’s throne and is foiled by heroic Robin Hood, and the Bastard putting together something like: my father was the great warrior and King, Richard, and King John, my lord, is my uncle, etc.
This is the sort of moment of real listening, and real revelation, that is exactly what I was hoping to experience in this cue script experiment. It was made very powerful by a strange combination of factors: never having read the play, my deep-seated emotional connections to the words “Richard, Lion Heart” despite my lack of familiarity with the historical monarchs. But the most important thing, the keystone for the whole experience, was simply that I needed to listen so attentively, so truthfully, to what was going on it the play. Because I was tuned in to what she was saying, I heard what my mother said and felt it deeply. I was invested, involved, because of a silly practical trick:
I was listening for my cue.
Read the next post in the series.