King John, We Hardly Knew Him
To one who cannot recall previous exposure to this play, this production provokes a torrent of thoughts, some of which will remain in flux for a long time to come. That the play and production evoke such thoughts speaks volumes for the richness that awaits those who see it.
After the death of Richard the Lionhearted, his youngest brother John assumes the throne of England in accordance with Richard’s will. However, Constance, the widow of Richard’s deceased brother Geffrey, seeks the crown for her adolescent son Arthur who is due the crown under the rules of succession. Constance successfully enlists the support of the King of France and the Catholic Church in her efforts.
What ensues is a complex, continually shifting and reshifting series of alliances and positions based on calculated self interest among a considerable number of factions. While it may not be surprising that Shakespeare paints a negative picture of these early 13th century ruling Plantagentets, it is amazing how much his history resembles the complexities of today’s political climate. There is much fodder here to support positions across our political spectrum. King John may be a more complex villain here than in the oft told legend of Robin Hood. However, he certainly isn’t one of the good guys.
Director Paul Mullins’ approach stresses the work’s contemporary relevance. He excels in making this complex story crystal clear and thus accessible to us. He accomplishes this by costuming his actors in clean, modern (but not too modern) feeling clothing and uniforms appropriate to the turn of the last century (think Chekhov) and then having most of his actors clearly deliver their dialogue in a naturalistic modern fashion.
Mullins has the principal protagonists wear their cruel selfishness on their sleeves, stressing the Bard’s disdain for their behavior and the havoc that they wreak. A director could have us take sides in the struggles presented by having one or another of them read the text with a sense of nobility, and thus present us with a very different outlook on the entire play.
The destruction caused by the avoidable conflict, and war itself, is further emphasized by the set design. The all purpose setting is essentially a room whose walls are mostly made up of an ancient (13th century?) map. As the play progresses, more and more pieces of the wall are removed, leaving jagged, gaping holes. Anita Stewart’s scenery and Lora LaVon’s costumes neatly augment Mullins’ concept.
It must be noted that the young Shakespeare was not at the peak of his powers here. Many of the scenes are schematic, resembling more the chronicles of English history than the full bodied, emotional resonance of much of his later work.
A character (i.e., Constance) will disappear with great suddenness (textual cuts may contribute to this). Another will materialize from the blue (i.e., Henry, son of King John). Key events are reported after occurring offstage. Still, this flawed Shakespeare has so very much of value and interest.
Andrew Weems as King John is cocksure and arrogant, totally lacking in introspection. This effectively lays the groundwork for the cowering, pitiful, immobile figure into which he is transformed by adversity.
Possibly the most evil character in the production is Brian Reddy’s Cardinal Pandulph, the papal emissary. His only goal is the imposition of papal authority. He repeatedly chances his position and alliances, and treats others with coldness and disdain. He effectively uses the threat of excommunication as a tool of power. Reddy’s chilling performance fulfills Shakespeare’s agenda here.
Ian Kahn as Richard’s illegitimate son Philip has a large role as a loyal supporter of King John. He is one of the few likeable non-scheming presences here. Often at the center of the play providing exposition, his style is easygoing and contemporary, his reading of the text is clearly and naturally articulated, and his likeability is an especial asset, given the nature of most of the other roles. Eleven year old Austin Colaluca is a most persuasive Arthur.
There is a cast of 20, and gratifyingly all of the roles are well performed.
It is notable that the one performance which is most traditional is the most vivid and theatrically effective. In the role of Constance, Laila Robins powerfully presents a picture of a woman who will scheme with anyone to accomplish her all consuming goal of having her son be king. She makes flesh Pandulph’s description of her reaction to her son’s being taken prisoner by John, “Lady, you utter madness, and not sorrow.”
Might a more classic approach to the play work as well, or even better than the one at hand? I would not hazard a guess. I do hope that I have the opportunity to see another production of King John against which to compare this one.
For now, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is offering a revelatory King John which should be seen.
King John, through August 17 at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, Madison Ave. at Lancaster Road (on the campus of Drew University) Madison, NJ. Box Office: 973-408-5600 or on the web at www.shakespearenj.org.
King John by William Shakespeare. Directed by Paul Mullins.