I can’t tell you how excited I was when I realized that Folger Theatre was including this play in their season! Admittedly, not because I have a great love of the matter, but it has been several years since I’ve been able to “check-off” a new (to me) Shakespeare play. King John counts as number 30! Leaving me a mere 7 more plays to see before I’ve seen them all. Many thanks to the Folger Theatre for the assist in achieving this milestone!
But back to the play. I had some concerns that, being one of the Bard’s later plays and infrequently performed, it must be somehow inherently flawed, and it may be but I thoroughly enjoyed this performance. I haven’t nerded out (yet) and gone back and read the play to verify this but my impression is that liberties were taken and some editing employed but all were to the benefit of the performance. Director Aaron Posner’s decision to have the cast introduce their characters and motivations as the prologue was great, in addition to giving you helpful background for the narrative, its wit winked at the audience and set the tone for the rest of the show.
The plot centers around the succession to the throne after the death of Richard the Lionhearted. John, with the backing of his mother Elanor of Aquitaine, has been crowned but his legitimacy is being challenged by Constance, the wife of John’s deceased older brother. Constance feels her son Arthur should be King and she has the backing of the French King and Dauphin, and weirdly the Duke who killed Richard…and mayhem ensues. War, political maneuvering, personal grudges, arranged marriages, mad monks, double crosses and Papal meddling take their turn on stage. And it ends badly for nearly everyone. You know, a rollicking good time, Shakespeare style! The only thing left out was the Magna Carta, aren’t they supposed to sign that somewhere along the way; it’s actually the one thing I know about King John outside of what I’ve seen in Robin Hood movies.
One standout in this play is that, unlike many of Shakespeare’s history plays, there was no shortage of strong female characters. Some of them were even men. Wait, that’s not right. Some of the male characters were acted by strong female actors. That’s what I meant. The triumvirate of Holly Twyford (Constance), Kate Goehring (Queen Elanor) and Kate Eastwood Norris (Phillip Faulconbridge) are a force to be reckoned with. Actually, you know how sometimes Shakespeaer’s plays aren’t really about the title character (I’m looking at you Henrys IV), in many respects I feel the play was more about Phillip Faulconbridge, the bastard son of Richard Lionheart, or perhaps Ms. Norris’s performance was so wonderful that that’s what stood out to me the most. It really was a very compelling performance, I found myself rooting for
Before the show I had a chance to visit the exhibit Churchill’s Shakespeare and I can only assume that the costume design was an intentional nod to the exhibit. The costuming quite clearly evoked the spirit of Edwardian/WWI era clothing, with just enough of a twist to not be literal and evoke the witty tone of the show itself. I loved the use of the flowers as a means of distinguishing the different sides of the conflict, it was a nice visual cue as peoples allegiances merged, diverged and changed. Sometimes with Shakespeare you really do need a score card to keep up with all the machinations.
And to bookend this review, and just in case anyone if curious, the seven Shakespeare plays that I am missing are:
- Two Noble Kinsmen
- King Henry VI-Part I
- King Henry VI-Part II
- King Henry VI-Part III
- Henry VIII
- Timon of Athens
- Troilus and Cressida
More than half the plays I need to see are all about Henrys, or so the titles would lead you to believe! If you hear of a production let me know!