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Jeremy Johnson Talks 'King John' and the Passions Behind the Throne

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Jan 27, 2020
Jeremy Johnson
Jeremy Johnson   

Among the 39 canonical plays of William Shakespeare, some are categorized as "Tragedies," some as "Comedies," and some as "Histories." And, spanning these categories, there's another subheading: The so-called "problem plays."

One of them might well be "King John," an early effort with some interesting structural issues - issues that Jeremy Johnson, who plays two major roles in the Praxis Stage Company production of the seldom-mounted work, was happy to discuss with EDGE during a recent conversation.

Johnson has been a longtime presence on the Boston theater scene, though he was absent for the better part of a decade until the late, lamented Zeitgeist Stage Company put on a production of "Love! Valour! Compassion!" that drew him back to the stage. Now, following the completion of his Master's Degree (in stage directing), as well as a prestigious three-week training at the Globe Theater in London last summer, the actor, director, and educator is back once more, his sense for Shakespeare keenly honed, for Praxis' take on the Bard's play about a power struggle that was precipitated by a foreign government (ahem!), then led to a crisis of governmental legitimacy (ahem, hem!!), and finally ended up with... well, not impeachment in the modern sense, exactly, though perhaps the medieval version of it.

Johnson plays King Philip II of France - who, Johnson theorizes, may have had a, err, "special relationship" with England's King Richard I, John's brother. He also plays Hubert, King John's trusted aide - and, as times in the kingdom grow dark, strong right arm. But strength isn't always about the sword; morality is mighty, too, and those with a strong moral center may find they are bound more closely to what's right than what's regal.

The situation is rife with royal intrigue. Richard I reigned toward the end of the 12th century. As a new century dawned, Richard's death led to John's seizure of the throne, triggering a power struggle as Philip II sought to see John deposed and Richard's son, Arthur, installed as the rightful heir to the crown. War, betrayal, murder... all the ingredients of a timeless political thriller are part of the mix.

EDGE was delighted to chat with Johnson about this seldom-seen play, and Johnson's take on the history, the tragedy, and his two crucial characters.

EDGE: Boston theater companies put on a lot of Shakespeare every season, but I don't recall seeing 'King John' before. It must be a play that is very seldom produced — do you have a sense as to why that might be?

Jeremy Johnson: It's an early history play, and structurally it is very strange. A lot of people are of the opinion that it doesn't have an ending; I think if you're not careful, the ending sort of peters out. John is a complicated character — he's not a hero, like Henry V, and he's not a villain like Richard III. He's somewhere in between, and I think that makes it difficult to figure out how to grab onto him. Lastly, the play includes several characters who appear in the first half and then disappear, and a new bunch of characters shows up — so, again, structurally it's very strange.

We've found it to be funny in a lot of places, so we're leaning into that while trying to balance it with the drama. But all of that combined makes it a daunting play to tackle. For that reason, it's not done very often — but we're finding it fascinating. We're having a really good time with it.

EDGE: The humor and pure poetry of Shakespeare plays make up for the times when structurally they aren't what you might expect.

Jeremy Johnson: Right, and again because it's an early play there are not huge amounts of poetry — everything is very much in strict meter. He's figuring stuff out. But there are some beautiful speeches.

EDGE: How fascinating to be producing an early work of Shakespeare and be thinking about his development as a playwright. But let me ask you your development as an artist — you were in Zeitgeist's production of "Love, Valour, Compassion!" a couple of seasons ago, but before then you had stepped back for a while from acting. What was the reason for that hiatus from acting, and what brought you back to the stage?

Jeremy Johnson: Most of my professional life has actually been as a director rather than an actor. Before "Love, Valour, Compassion!" I hadn't been on stage for about eight years. I did "Shear Madness" over at the Charles Playhouse, and I was working over at StageSource, which is a nonprofit organization, but I'd been doing a lot of teaching at local schools, directing plays. I was really getting involved in being an educator. And then I got this job at an all-girls' private school as the drama teacher, and I had to stop everything and figure out how to become a teacher. My mom was a teacher, and I swore my entire life that I would never do it — and of course, I ended up becoming a teacher. So, I took a step back from acting and directing professionally for a little while, just to figure out my new life as an educator — and then, before I knew it, eight years had gone by! I don't know how that happened!

[Laughter]

Jeremy Johnson: I was starting to get a little antsy and wanting to get back into the theater again. The Zeitgeist thing came up. I have to give a shout out to StageSource for helping me find that gig. So, I went out and did that, and had a great time. And after that, I wanted to do more. But then again, I'm at a point where I only want to do it if it's something I'm really interested in — if the play or role is interesting or the people who are working on it that are interesting. Which I know is a really privileged place to be, but it's a lot of time, and it's a lot of mental energy and physical energy... you want to make sure it's worth all of that.

So, "King John" came along, and it sounded fascinating, and the group that was working on it sounded really interesting, so I thought I'd go out and give it a try again.

EDGE It's double fascinating for you because you get to play two major roles — that of King Philip II of France, and also King John's confidante, Hubert... who I guess kind of becomes John's enforcer, so to speak.

Jeremy Johnson: Yeah — they are polar opposites of one another. One has a ton of status, obviously, being the King of France, and he's John's foil in the first half of the play; we're head to head with one another. And then in the second half of the play Philip disappears, and Hubert is John's right-hand man. He's a much lower-status character. Philip doesn't have a strong moral center; whatever is going to work politically in the moment is what he is going to do. Whereas Hubert is extremely loyal to John but is given an order that he can't follow through with. He's ordered to kill John's nephew, and he swears to do it, but then he can't do it because of his conscience. You have these two characters that are sort of uniquely opposite one another, and it's fun to play both of them in the same two hours. [Director] Kim [Gaughan] did all of the doubling [in the casting] very consciously, so [when members of the cast are playing two different characters], we have mirrored aspects of one another, or they [represent] opposing forces, so if you look at the doubling [in terms of the casting choices] you'll see some clever choices.

EDGE But as you said, these characters are not necessarily meant to be read as "good" and "evil." So there aren't polar opposites in that way.

Jeremy Johnson: I don't think so. I think there are two different kinds of people that stand on opposite sides in multiple ways, and so for me, it's a chance to access two different parts of myself in order to play [the two different characters], which is really fun.

EDGE: I guess you have done quite a lot of research into King Philip and the dynamics of his rivalry with King John. What insights has your research given you into the historical figures and the play?

Jeremy Johnson: The thing that I found most fascinating when I started doing my reading was that there are some sources that think that Philip actually was in a relationship with John's older brother, Richard. The two of them went to the Crusades together. There's a play from James Goldman called "The Lion in Winter." They turned it into a movie with Anthony Hopkins as Richard, and Timothy Dalton as Philip. And they have, I have to say, a very sexy, intense scene with one another halfway through the film — and so when we started our play, we sort of decided that Richard has only been killed about three months earlier, and John has just recently taken the throne. I started thinking, "Okay, if my boyfriend had just died three months ago, and someone else is taking over, and I am the King of France, and he is the King of England, I am working through grief; I have lost my biggest ally." It added this new dimension for me as an actor, but also as a gay actor, that I found really interesting. I brought it up to Kim, and she said, "Run with it." It's really helped inform some of my choices and helped me personalize the character a lot more. So, yay for research!

[Laughter]

EDGE: It also seems to me there's also a natural parallel there with our current political times — there's a dispute about the legitimacy of England's leadership, and there are very deep divisions and strong convictions around who should be in charge. Is that something else that plugs into the Praxis Stage interpretation of the play?

Jeremy Johnson: It actually is. I think what Kim is doing really well is not hitting it too hard on the head. We're not trying to set it "now," we're not trying to make anyone a specific, recognizable character [as relates to our current reality]. I think the themes are going to be really obvious to a contemporary audience, but we've created our own little universe. One of the things we have also focused on is, yes, there's a political story that's happening, but also when you look at all these people in the room, we're all related. This is a very weird family drama. "This is brother-in-law." "This is my sister-in-law." "Eleanor and I worked together to kill her husband." There's a lot of baggage in this room between all of these people who are [an extended] family, but they are making decisions that affect millions of people in both countries, and some of the decisions are very petty and very personal — which I think is real; I think that's true. That's been fascinating for us, too, that these are really powerful people who have tons of influence but also who like anyone else's crazy family.

[Laughter]

EDGE: The human family.

Jeremy Johnson: Yeah! And the other thing is, we could have a lot of fun just playing horrible rich people, but we had to say, "That's great — but to what end?" If we're cynical the entire play, what's the final message? We have to find where these struggles come to a moment of understanding and truth. Can Hubert and some of the other characters that have some moral compass become stronger voices in the second half of the play to humanize the play, so that we're not cynical the entire time? Finding that balance is key, I think.

EDGE: It is an odd play, in how it ends... or doesn't end... but would you say that play does offer hope, or that you are finding hope in it?

Jeremy Johnson: Well, you know, we sat down to work on the final scene, and Kim looked at all of us and said, "I don't know what this ending is." So we started going back and forth and asked that: "Do we want there to be hope at the end? Do we want to end with a whimper? Do we want it to end cynically?" We are kind of wrestling with it right now. I think we want a feeling that, yes, things are difficult but we're going to get through it, which is I think is how all of us are kind of feeling about where we are right now in the country. Something's wrong, and we're struggling, but we're gonna get through it. We've gotten through it before. The ending speech says, "This England never did, nor never shall, lie at the proud foot of a conqueror." The rulers will come and go, but England will always be. And can we say that about America too? I hope so. I hope that, without being too naïve and overly optimistic, that we are going to be okay.


The Praxis Stage Company production of "King John" runs January 31 — Feb. 16 at the Boston Center for the Arts. For tickets and more information, please go to https://www.praxisstage.com/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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