The first play I ever saw at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s fabulous Theatre in D.C. was Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, directed by Aaron Posner, and I was enthralled by the utter dedication to the text and the clean linearity that Posner brought to this complicated play. Ever since, I have tried to get to as many of the Folger productions as I can, and I never fail to revel in the inventiveness — which is not simply for effect, but always based in faithfulness to the text. Aaron Posner, directing The Winter’s Tale, District Merchants, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Twelfth Night — the list goes on and on — is a true master at this.
Now, we have his production of King John, the first in the chronological line-up of Shakespeare’s eleven English history plays, but actually written between Richard II and Henry IV Part I. The historical King John was the youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor of Acquitaine, and became infamous for losing most of England’s lands in France, for quarreling with the Pope, and for the alienation of many of his subjects, which finally lead to his being forced to sign the Magna Carta. Shakespeare’s play is a tangled web of alliance, misalliance, changing sides, and roiling questions about the right to the English throne.
Aaron Posner begins to make sense of it all for us with an opening prologue, and continues to do so with clearly delineated strokes of characterization and action, like resorting at one point to having an actor represent the besieged town of Angers by setting up and climbing a ladder in the center aisle of the theatre, and proceeding to bellow at the opposing Kings of France and England up on the stage.
The hero of the play, if there is one, is Philip Faulconbridge — the so-named Bastard — who is the natural-born son of John’s oldest brother, Richard the Lionheart, and the part is played by Kate Eastwood Norris, fresh from her performance at Lady Macbeth at the Folger Theatre this September. She is magnificent and utterly believable as a fiery youth. The part of the young Prince Arthur — considered by his mother, King John’s widowed sister-in-law, and by France, to be the legitimate heir to the throne — is also played by a woman, Megan Graves. She, too, is utterly believable as a boy, and made my heart turn over many times with her/his vulnerable, urgent poignancy.
Although I once did the soliloquy of Arthur’s mother, Constance, as an assignment when I was at drama school, I had never read the complete play, much less seen it, since it is so seldom done. I can’t imagine a better introduction than Aaron Posner’s current production for the Folger Theatre. It is running through December 2nd — you would do yourself a favor to see it.
Tags:Folger Theatre, King John, Shakespeare