Shakespeare’s King John: politics as usual?
In Shakespeare’s King John at the Folger Theater, it’s not so much the play, as the players that are the thing.
The Bard’s early, seldom-seen historical play is a mostly wild, part-wily work that includes two or three wars, deadly threats, murders, betrayals, under-the-table deals, corruption, deception, a poisoning, a beheading, a possible suicide, an excommunication and assorted other happenings. Apparently it’s politics as usual in the 13th century.
In order to help the audience discern who’s doing what to whom and why, the Folger troupe helpfully adds a prologue to the action. Convoluted things then get underway.
First, the good stuff. King John, as portrayed wonderfully by Brian Dykstra, is a kind of a buffoon with a bit of conscience as he wheels and deals to keep England (but mostly himself and those closest to him) prosperous and great.
The way he keeps tripping himself up, both politically and physically (stumbling on the platform whenever he goes to sit on his throne), and how he re-questions and recants on some of his deeds ring with one side of a human truth.
Award-winning actress Holly Twyford, who plays the mother of Arthur, the young boy denied a possibly rightful crown, wisely holds in the hysteria while deeply emoting the deepening anger and grief of a betrayed mother.
And veteran director Aaron Posner brightly edits the action and brings out the salient humanity, when it exists, in the various characters.
Here, more or less, is the plot: The King of France sends an envoy to King John to let him know that he is not the rightful heir to the crown, which France says should be worn by young Arthur, John’s older dead brother’s son. Give up the crown to Arthur or else, the King of France’s envoy says.
King John refuses, then quickly becomes involved in a dispute between two half-brothers, Robert and Phillip, over their inheritance. Same mother, different fathers. Phillip the Bastard’s old man happened to be the late, former King Richard (the Lionheart).
Queen Mother Eleanor convinces Phillip, whom she recognizes as the spitting image of son Richard (she is also mother to King John), to give up his claim for a knighthood from King John. Phillip the Bastard is then knighted as Sir Richard.
That’s the first few minutes. What follows is war between France and England over ownership of the English-ruled town of Angiers, a war won by neither side.
Meanwhile, back at the palaces, a marriage is arranged between Louis, the French Dauphin (heir apparent), and Blanche, the niece of John.
Both sitting kings see this as a good deal. It gives John a stronger claim to the throne as both families unite, while King Phillip gets for Louis a dowry of English land for France. Politics as usual, probably any century.
Then: an attempt to get rid of Arthur, the kid who many think should be England’s king. But the would-be assassin pulls back at the last minute (the kid dies anyway as he either attempts to escape or decides to commit suicide by jumping from high up in his castle prison).
There’s also the excommunication of King John for disobeying the pope on an archbishop appointment, the Vatican goading King Phillip of France to get rid of John, and another war.
King John is poisoned to death by a disgruntled monk (we’re told, not shown), while English noblemen keep switching sides during the latest French-English combat.
According to my Spark Notes: “Unlike Shakespeare’s earlier history plays, King John does not portray a providential movement of history, where everything happens for a reason on a predestined path to a moral conclusion…the characters are thwarted by historical accident and adversity, making King John more a pragmatic representation of political events than a story shaped according to aesthetic ends.”
Still and all, the historical drama is not without its moving moments. There are signs of what Shakespeare does best, reminding us of our deepest humanity, when the assigned executioner of the young Arthur realizes that if young, innocent life fervently wants to go on, it must go on.
To put it in un-Shakespearean language: The hell with the money and favors that I’ll be getting. This is a good kid; let him live.
Able actors, modern dress
The Folger Theater audience will get the acting goods from just about all the cast, especially the following:
— Kate Goehring, who, as the Queen mother, manages to keep son John on a halfway steady monarch track;
— Megan Graves, a female playing a male role, whose portrayal of young Arthur is convincingly morose when denied the crown and convincingly
touching when he pleads for his life;
— Elan Zafir, as Hubert, the would-be Arthur killer;
— Akeem Davis, as the oratorical Dauphin, and
— Kate Eastwood Norris, as the Bastard, with the best of oft-sarcastic lines.
Director Posner concentrates on character, which seems all to the good. Possible stagey battle scenes are replaced by flashlit faces of the combatants commenting on the action, blinking lights and some booming sounds.
Call me very old fashioned, but I prefer period costume to the modern dress worn by the Shakespeareans in this play.
Still, there is enough political shrewdness, wheeling, cynical dealing and self-satire of rulers on display to make this, while perhaps not the best Shakespeare experience, a pretty good one.
We are once more reminded that the political and the personal intertwine, that power placed in human hands comes and goes, and — of course — what fools we mortals be.
King John continues through Dec. 2 at the Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE, Washington, D.C. Tickets are $25 to $80, with a discount of $10 off any full-price ticket for those 65 and older. For more information and to purchase tickets, see www.folger.edu/folger-theatre or call (202) 544-7077.