It often seems there are two categories of Shakespeare plays: those that get done to death (Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Twelfth Night’s Tempest), and those it is death to do (ever sat through Richard II? yeesh).
So it’s high praise indeed to say about Folger’s King John, going on now until Dec. 2, that it makes you wonder why the show isn’t done more often.
As directed by Aaron Posner in his 20th (!) Folger production, John, chronologically the oldest of Shakespeare’s English monarch history subjects, is neither hero nor villain, neither towering paragon of divine right nor wicked usurper in stolen ermine robes. But, for all that, actor Brian Dykstra, in a layered, involving performance that one suspects would reward repeat viewings, doesn’t take the easy route of playing John as “simply human,” either. This is a king. A flawed, impetuous king to be sure, and not one who oversaw Britain’s finest (or most fascinating) hours, but a king ne’ertheless, and Shakespeare, Posner, and Dykstra work together to give his story heft.
If modern audiences think of King John at all, they think of two things: the signing of the Magna Carta, and the eat-the-rich antagonist of Robin Hood legends. Shakespeare wasn’t about to dive into the politics of the former and the latter is, well, fictional, so instead we deal here with issues of contested succession and the ever-present threat of war with France. Richard I, he of the lion heart, is dead, and the queen mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Kate Goehring is imperial but still welcomely hot-blooded), backs her other son John’s claim to the throne. Not so the French and Austrians, who support the young Arthur (Megan Graves is game even for some of the play’s most frustrating scenes), son of the late Geoffrey, who was older brother to John and younger to Richard.
Much of the action takes place around battles (they very much did not employ a fight choreographer, which was probably a good call) in the British holdings in France, where also along for the ride are Philip Falconbridge (Kate Eastwood Norris finds merriment in what is clearly the writer’s favorite character) the bastard son of Coeur-de-Lion, and Constance, the widow of Geoffrey and mother and ferocious supporter of Arthur. Holly Twyford is terrific in the role, which gets the most famous of the show’s several superlative monologues, but really all of the performances are top-notch. No weak links in this chain.
Costume designer Sarah Cubbage and lighting designer Max Doolittle team up to paint things in lovely shades of grey, with appropriate splashes of blue and red as the mood demands. These are technical aspects that doesn’t just look choice, they also suck the viewer in to the psychology of the piece. There’s a recurring bit of business in which John trips over the platform of his own throne. Like his ill-fitting suit, it isn’t exactly a subtle metaphor, but you like both more and more as the show goes on, and Dykstra does such a great job selling the first stumble, it truly looks accidental. By the time John gets the hang of it, it might already be too late.
The script hits some major potholes in Act 2 — scenes about the murder of children aren’t really about John’s reign so much as they are about making Elizabethan audiences cry — but the suspension system of this ride is strong enough to endure them. Other injuries are self-inflicted. The added backstory introduction is just this side of insulting: There’s exposition in the play, after all, and we can read our programs, thank you. And I wish every aside to the audience didn’t come with a freeze frame and lighting change. But none of these spoil the overall effect, which is cohesive and compelling.
People really should stage King John more often, as long as they can stage it like this.