King John

-Folger Theatre

The picture isn’t fuzzy, the playbill is intentionally so!

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 her…him.

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!

The Sweet Science of Bruising

-Southwark Playhouse, London

This production has already closed but it was intriguing enough that I still want write about it. The premise grabbed my attention immediately; Victorian era women’s boxing. I am perpetually on the lookout for the new and different and this seemed to fit the bill. It also had the added bonuses of being a world premiere and unlikely to cross the pond anytime soon.

Set in the latter part of the 19th century the play revolves around four women of different social classes: Violet, nurse with ambitions to be a doctor; Anna, upper middle class housewife; Matty, typesetter by day, prostitute by night; and Polly, lower class workaday who genuinely wants to be a boxer. The play explores how each of them are drawn into the underground world of women’s boxing and the inevitable intersection of their lives. It is both an interesting vignette of Victorian London and a good allegory of modern feminism (in a look how far we’ve come, but look how far we must still go).

For these women boxing is a means to an end; self-determination and fiscal freedom from the men who control their lives, be they boyfriends, husbands, employers and/or tricks. That their only means of achieving that freedom is by allowing themselves to be exploited for the titillation of these selfsame men is the irony that drives the narrative. It is further highlighted when Polly, the one woman who really wants to be a boxer, is the one who gives it up to be with the man she loves and to sooth and bolster his ego.

I enjoyed the play, it was entertaining and interesting and very well acted. The four female leads were very good and I especially enjoyed Fiona Skinner as Polly, there was an effortless genuineness to her performance that made me really like the character.

The material itself could use some refining. Mostly in the story of Anna, the housewife with the philandering and abusive husband. I rather wish that her husband’s abuse wasn’t what drove her to boxing, or that he was even physically abusive. Perhaps the bloodlessness of her existence motivates her to seek out the adrenaline rush of boxing. Of the four women she has and loses the most. I rather wish, SPOILER ALERT…

…I rather wish, instead of Anna being executed for beating her husband to death she was incarcerated in the sanitarium as her husband threatened. I think it would have been a stronger condemnation of society’s hypocrisy and how little power she had in the world. For doing that which her husband himself enjoyed watching, she is considered deviant and can be  summarily punished. As long as I’m wishing for things, I also wish that the physical altercation with her husband had taken place on stage. I was anticipating that moment, the build-up to it was palpable, and I feel a little robbed by having the cathartic moment of confrontation happen off stage.

The weakness of this production was the boxing. This may be a picky criticism but when the premise is women can do anything men can do, don’t give me bad fake boxing. Certainly the show isn’t actually about women boxing but boxing did comprise a significant number of the scenes and the poor choreography and execution took you out of the moment and disrupted the flow of the play. It could be why I enjoyed Ms. Skinner’s performance the most, of all the actresses she seemed to have the best handle on how to (fake) box. Her altercation with her husband/sparing partner was the most realistic in the show. It’s the only time the audience gasped.