WASHINGTON, November 4, 2018. One of the great things about the Folger Theatre Company is its ability to breathe new life into neglected, rarely seen Shakespearean plays. Case in point: the Bard’s rarely-seen King John. Or, as the first folio would have it, The Life and Death of King John. The Folger’s lively revival of this once-popular play is now running at the Folger through December 2.
Shakespeare fans had better head for the Folger to see this one before it’s gone. As with many of Shakespeare’s more obscure efforts, this could be Washington’s first – and last – opportunity to see King John, at least within one lifetime.
So what happened to the Magna Carta and Robin’s Merry Men?
History fans and moviegoers should find John’s troubled reign (1199–1216) of interest. Those even slightly familiar with English history and legend already know about Robin Hood; John’s pal (and Robin’s enemy), the evil Sheriff of Nottingham; and, of course, the Magna Carta. Right?
Whether fact, fiction or both, tales of Robin, Nottingham and greedy King John have remained favorites with successive generations. TV series and movie reboots have popped up regularly. Each is updated, massaged and made politically and socially correct for every generation.
As for the Magna Carta, students of Western History should be aware (we hope) that this landmark document John was forced to sign is regarded by many as an early landmark on the path that led to the American Constitution.
But why doesn’t any of this popular material appear in King John? Shakespeare likely had an entirely different emphasis in mind when he (or his doppelgängers) composed this verse play in the 1590s.
King John vs. France, Rome and an empty treasury
Most scholars agree that John’s reign was a chaotic one. As the youngest son of the powerful King Henry II, he was never expected to be king. But, following the death of Henry’s successor, King Richard II of Lionheart fame and an older brother, John succeeded Richard, mainly because he was Henry’s last surviving male heir.
Historians long regarded John as a weak king. History backs this up to a considerable extent. John lost a goodly chunk of England’s French territory during his reign. In addition, he constantly battled England’s nobility in a series of skirmishes and power games likely inspired by his weak leadership. Some modern scholars are a bit easier on John, however, given the financial and leadership problems he inherited from his more famous but often-absent brother, King Richard II.
Shakespeare’s King Johndeals with much of this in an abbreviated fashion. The play’s underlying political emphasis explores the problem of royal succession. Perhaps more importantly, it focuses on John’s battle against the authority of the Roman Catholic Church under the worldly Pope Innocent III.
Prefiguring Henry VIII’s issue with the Papacy
Innocent excommunicated John for daring to appoint his own Archbishop of Canterbury over the Pope’s preferred candidate. Many of the popes in King John’s era were princes first and popes second, controlling as they did extensive Papal territories and fiefdoms. As such, they exercised “religious” control over other kingdoms that stretched far beyond the borders of the Papal States.
This was a central dilemma for John and the English. They, like many European kings and princes, chafed under the “religious” edicts imposed on them by Rome. John’s battle with Innocent – which he eventually lost due to military and fiscal weakness – clearly foreshadowed Henry VIII’s later epic showdown with the Vatican. However, the stronger-willed Henry’s defiance of Rome led to England’s permanent break with Roman Catholicism. John’s led only to defeat.
PC in Elizabethan times
Maintaining favor with the reigning Tudor monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare likely saw John’s earlier troubles with Rome as foreshadowing Henry’s later dilemma, helping to justify his later break with the Catholic Church. Indirectly, both history and Shakespeare’s play argue in favor of the Church of England’s legitimacy and the legitimacy of the succeeding Tudor reign as well. This theme continues throughout Shakespeare’s history plays.
Shakespeare would have instinctively avoided emphasizing the rebellious Robin Hood or the landmark Magna Carta when writing King John. For the autocratic, absolutist Tudor monarchs, both would be seen as threats to their divine right to role. And ultimately, to paraphrase an old adage, it’s the victors who write the histories.
The look and feel of the Folger’s King John revival
The Folger’s current edition of King John is set against a drab, unfinished-looking backdrop, that could serve to symbolize the political chaos of his reign. Costuming for the production is an odd mishmash of contemporary Euro-drab, an oddball blend of more or less modern dress spiced up on occasion with 19th century and occasional medieval touches. It’s not terribly distinctive. But it helps us to focus on the characters rather than on the theatrical trappings. The costuming may also remind us of our own duplicitous politicians right here in the nation’s capital.
A Folger Theatre original: King John’s non-Shakespearean prologue
Imaginatively directed by Aaron Posner, the Folger’s production begins with the full cast on stage as themselves. But in costume. In a dramatic, non-Shakespearean prologue, they introduce the audience to the characters they’re playing while providing some historical background on their significance. We’re normally not fond of such interpolations.
But in the case of King John, this prologue is a brilliant stroke. With wit, crispness and brevity, it saves audiences from scrambling around for half the play trying to understand what’s going on.
The players: King John
What the audience jumps into in medias res is the predictably chaotic reign of a problematic English King. Bryan Dykstra portrays John as blustery, intellectually shallow and weak-willed, try though he might to rule. Muddling through an endless series of crises, he typically favors short-range solutions that fall apart.
Dykstra is adept at presenting John’s serial indecisions in an oddly coherent way. This permits the audience to sympathize with John, despite his internal contradictions.
Unfortunately for John, the remaining cast, dominated by driven, strong-willed individuals, has a stronger grasp of power politics than John will ever possess.
Constance, Arthur, the King of France and a formidable mom
Chief among John’s antagonists is the perpetually furious Constance (Holly Twyford). The widow of John’s late brother Geoffrey and the mother of Geoffrey’s young son, Arthur (Megan Graves), she continuously – and stridently – champions her son as England’s legitimate king. With his legitimacy already under question, John does not appreciate her tireless efforts.
Twyford’s vigorous portrayal of Constance is effective to a point. Unfortunately, her unhinged, consistently strident approach to this role frequently borders caricature, at least in this writer’s opinion.
John has other formidable opponents. Chief among them is the power-hungry King Philip of France (Howard W. Overshown), who threatens to get John’s French territories back under his own control. Overshown’s portrayal of the French King in some ways mirrors Dykstra’s King John. Wholeheartedly “for” a given proposal before he’s against it, Overshown creates an intriguing “point-counterpoint” interplay with Dykstra, demonstrating that the English King is not the only one having a hard time with decision-making.
John’s vexations even include his mother, the still-formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine (Kate Goehring). She rues the day when her terminally indecisive son became king, leaving John as isolated as ever. Goehring underscores Eleanor’s brief appearances with royal authority bolstered by a royal haughtiness.
Philip the Bastard: The real action hero of King John?
Shakespeare provides us with at least one forthright character in King John. It’s another Philip, Philip Faulconbridge, the bastard son of the late Richard Lionheart by Lady Faulconbridge (also played by Kate Goehring).
Unlike John, Faulconbridge – aka, “The Bastard” – has a warrior’s heart, an instinct for strategy, and the strength of character to hold it all together. He provides another strange contrast with John: He is the man the King should be but isn’t.
In many ways, Faulconbridge is the real lead character in this play. He’s an inspirational leader, a man’s man, particularly in comparison to John. He also serves as the play’s conscience, providing snappy narratives on the routine evil and pettiness of royal politics. Washingtonians on either side of the aisle today might actually agree with his remarks.
It’s not entirely clear why this production chose to cast Kate Eastwood Norris in the alpha male role of Philip the Bastard, King John’s most powerful role.
Happily, Norris parries any raised eyebrows by diving fearlessly into the part, portraying Philip with conviction and swagger. She also invests Faulconbridge with the proper measure of confidence, intelligence and authority, becoming the key foil to Dykstra’s waffling King John. Viewing them side-by-side, the audience can easily imagine what might have occurred under a different King.
Key secondary roles
Actors portraying the key secondary characters in King John are another important reason for the success of the Folger’s current production. Especially notable for their efforts are Elan Zafir, Sasha Olinick and Megan Graves.
Zafir’s Hubert – a loyal attendant to King John – radiates both a personal attachment to his king with a strong moral core that leads him to demur when John tasks him with an unfortunate assassination. He is, in many ways, the most human character in this play.
As Cardinal Pandulph, the pope’s representative in charge of bringing John to heel, Olinick does a nifty turn as a nasty cleric who approaches his task like an eager Grand Inquisitor.
Megan Graves is genuinely touching in what opera goers would call a “trouser role.” She portrays, convincingly and sympathetically, the unfortunate young Arthur, tormented on one hand by his power-hungry mom Constance, and by the amoral King John on the other. Her attempts to avoid a violent end add an element of tragic humanity to a play otherwise populated by notably cold, calculating characters.
Highly recommended for Shakespeare fans
Once considerably more popular than it is today, King John is not Shakespeare’s strongest play. But it’s a worthy precursor to his major history plays and lays the groundwork for a dramatic narrative supportive of the legitimacy and divine right of the Tudor dynasty. Add to this the Folger’s surprisingly effective value-added elements, and almost-forgotten piece of the Shakespeare oeuvre springs to surprising life. You’ll really want to see King John before it departs the Folger Theatre stage in early December.
Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half out of four stars)
Who and what: The Folger Shakespeare Theatre’s new production of William Shakespeare’s King John.
Where: Folger Shakespeare Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE, Washington, DC.
When: Through December 2, 2018.
Tickets and information: Ticket prices range from $42-$79. For tickets and information, visit the Folger Theatre’s website, or call 202-544-7077.
— Headline image: King John (Brian Dykstra) experiences another troubling moment. Photo by Teresa Wood for Folger Shakespeare Theater Company’s production of Shakespeare’s King John.