John Knox

If you want to see a show that constructs John Knox as a talking point for oversimplified political views, may I suggest Mary Queen of Scots got her Head Chopped Off? It’s not on at this year’s Fringe, but is commonly done in Scottish secondary schools and universities, where you can see similar production values and performances in a script that doesn’t use one of Scotland’s most controversial historical figures as a tool for the American political right.

Self-righteous ideology is only aggravated by poor performances and an in-your-face script.

John Knox, a new play by Jerry Averill, shows what would happen if the Six Characters in Search of an Author showed up to help a struggling playwright make an ideological revelation, a la Christmas Carol. The invitations to comparison with, especially, the works of Lochhead and Pirandello are unfortunate for the production, as both Six Characters and Mary Queen of Scots have vastly superior scripts with totally contrary ideologies.

Plot-wise, the play revolves around the aforementioned writer (Elizabeth Averill) who is writing a play about John Knox, but struggles with the seeming inconsistencies in his words and actions, until the characters in her play come to life and teach her the true meaning of justification by faith alone. By teaching the playwright about Knox’s life and his relationship with God, the characters help her gain a clearer insight into the way her work should proceed.

The writing lacks subtlety on any level. The dialogue is full of things that should be left to performance, with lines like “I’m so confused!” And there are so many straw man versions of Catholic theology that it’s practically a fire hazard. More upsetting, the play attempts to, rather than reconcile Knox’s good and bad elements, aggressively explain away anything that doesn’t fit the play’s understanding of the reformer. So the ‘monstrous regiment’ is redefined and refuted by historical context, and Knox’s avocation of violent resistance is totally glossed over. Most egregiously, there’s an appeal to comparison between the Tudor Monarchy’s authoritarian rule and the current government of the United States. The subtitle suggests that the play is asking whether Knox is a “Bigoted misogynist or champion of freedom,” but the product clearly knows what it wants the answer to be.

The performances aren’t much better. The actors play it big, as though to a much bigger audience than was in the modest church hall, but somehow lacked feeling. Phillip Todd, playing Knox, was a particular disappointment. John Knox was like a 16th century Malcolm X, known for his charisma and inspiring public speaking, even while advancing extreme views. Todd never approached that level of emotion or dedication. More generally, my excitement at finally hearing convincing American accents was undercut by all the time they spend using those accents while playing Scots. And none of the cast seem able to remember the dates they are supposed to rattle off while telling Knox’s biography, a significant failure.

Even as a free show, I cannot recommend John Knox. Its self-righteous ideology is only aggravated by poor performances and an in-your-face script. There are better things to see at this year’s Fringe.

Reviews by Bennett Bonci

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The Blurb

Bigoted misogynist or champion of freedom? Can John Knox, leader of the comprehensive Scottish reformation in the 16th century, still teach us anything today about democracy, equality and freedom from tyranny, or can he be written off as a bigoted religious extremist? In a new play by Jerry Averill in association with New Scottish Arts, John Knox takes you on a journey with the reformer ‘who feared the face of no man.’