King John was not a good man, and in case you didn't learn A.A. Milne's nursery rhyme, Shakespeare makes the point abundantly clear in "The Life and Death of King John," airing tonight (9 to midnight) on Channel 26.
This production of one of his early plays is the last in the seven-year, 37-play series on PBS, and it ends this massive and laudatory undertaking not with a bang, but a wimp.
The wimp is John, who despite his renown (he signed the Magna Carta) is weak and vacillating to the point of evil. He is an odd choice for the focus of a play, because his character defects are so banal. He is not a grand villain, but a puny one, thrust into history by accident of birth and battered by a confusing series of rivalries and battles.
Although this production is sharp and the verse beautifully spoken, knowledge of the plot is an advantage in sorting out whose ox is being gored.
As the play opens, John has been asked by the King of France to give up his throne to allow his nephew Arthur, who is about 13, to ascend. He responds by declaring war on France. The first battle, outside the city of Angiers, is won by neither side, and the city refuses to acknowledge a victor. So France and England join forces to subdue Angiers.
A marriage is arranged between King John's niece, Blanch, and the French dauphin, Lewis. But before peace is declared, a representative of the pope arrives to excommunicate John for refusing to appoint the papal choice for archbishop of Canterbury. He also tells the French king to cut all ties with England, so the two countries are once again at war.
John orders the captured Arthur killed, but his lieutenant, Hubert de Burgh, doesn't have the heart to do it. Arthur later dies trying to escape from captivity, and several top nobles, thinking John is responsible, abandon him and give their loyalty to France.
The pope's representative, Pandulph, tries again to get John to do the pope's bidding, and this time he is successful. In one of the play's best scenes, John's loyal aide Philip the Bastard, shocked at John's weakness, chastises him and exhorts him to "Be as stirring as the time!" He rushes off to fight France, not knowing that John is about to be poisoned by a monk. In the end, John's teen-age son Henry takes the throne, and peace is negotiated with France.
For a title figure, John is not even center stage until the second half of the play, while other figures -- like Arthur's fiery and ambitious mother (Claire Bloom) and John's mother Elinor (Mary Morris) -- dominate the stage.
The most heroic and likable character is Philip the Bastard, the illegitimate son of Sir Robert Faulconbridge. (Viewers should be aware that Philip turns out to be John's nephew and is retitled Sir Richard Plantagenet.) George Costigan invests the character with an open and colloquial air, most appropriate for television, and in his unswerving loyalty to his country and the crown, the Bastard proves to be the most honorable fellow of the lot.
As John, the late Leonard Rossiter is wily and wicked, a nasty monarch with no redeeming qualities.