King John; directed by Aaron Posner for The Folger Theatre of Washington, D.C., USA. November 11, 2018
Edited by Justin B. Hopkins and reviewed by Jeremy Mauser, Abby Dotterer, Shannon Briggs, Caitlyn Erdman, Ian McLachlan, Yu Hai, Elizabeth Quinn, and Lillian Ward-Packard, Franklin and Marshall College
I teach a first-year undergraduate seminar on Shakespeare, and I recently took fifteen students to the Folger Theatre for a production of King John, directed by Aaron Posner. We had not studied the play in class, but I had told the students a bit about the text—its back story, history, and the reasons for its rarity in performance. The class had also taken a tour round the Folger, with the docent guide re-emphasizing the script’s structural flaws, as well as the strength of some of its characters and scenes.
I assigned my students to review the production. Their detailed description and insightful interpretation impressed me, especially given their lack of prior familiarity with the play. With their permission, I share their perspectives, excerpted and framed by my briefest possible commentary.
Many students commented favorably on the production’s specially composed prologue.
Jeremy Mauser, for example, found the prologue crucial in rendering the play accessible:
Myriad directorial decisions, such as a modern prologue, assisted with helping the audience to understand the political aspects of King John. In the first moments of the production, the actors explained complex plot developments and characters’ beginning mindsets by inserting a prologue with modern English… More specifically, they introduced themselves by breaking the fourth wall and using such modern phrases as “badass” and “politics, right?,” subsequently engaging the audience and helping them to understand crucial plot points.
Other students focused on aspects of the productions design. Abby Dotterer, for example, concentrated on the early-to-mid twentieth century costumes, mostly in a black and white and grey palette, but accented by significant splashes of color:
While I expected corsets and puffed sleeves, the costumes for this production made me feel like I was watching Shakespeare in a speakeasy… The major thing I noticed with the costumes were the flowers. These plants on the lapels and dresses of the characters distinguished which side people were on — John’s or Arthur’s. As for someone who had never seen or read the play, this made it very easy to keep track of the show’s alliances. … The flowers were also used to show respect, like when they were put over dead Arthur’s body.
Another aspect of design that received attention was the effective simplicity of the set: a throne center-stage and a crown suspended above it. Shannon Briggs, for example, emphasized the significance of the minimalism and how it illustrated the central character’s conflict in several ways:
King John [played by Brian Dykstra] point[ing] to his crown as if to remind himself, and the audience, that he really is king, his ever-increasing inability to approach the throne without stumbling and the larger-than-life crown dangling, just out of reach, above the throne. The choice to use such little set design makes the few things on stage hold great meaning; the throne itself represented danger and death, whereas the large crown symbolized the power struggle for — and instability of — the English crown. The use of only a few bold pieces made it easy for the audience to identify thematic aspects of the play that may have been convoluted if the stage design was in a constant state of change.
Caitlyn Erdman concurred and added commentary on Arthur’s ingeniously-staged interaction with the set:
The other possible English heir, Arthur [played by Megan Graves], was also subject to the actions of the throne. After being captured and held by the English he tries to escape. The stage was black and one spotlight shone on Arthur’s scared face peeking out from behind the throne. He climbed out from behind it and stood anxiously on the arm pondering his potential fate. The throne stood as a metaphorical wall from which he would jump hundreds of feet down to the solid ground. Arthur uttered his last words and leapt from the seat of the throne, landing flat on the ground and dying almost instantly. The choice made to have his death be a function of the throne again gives it a greater meaning.
Other cast members’ work received praise as well, most of all Kate Eastwood Norris’s Bastard. For example, Ian McLachlan noted:
Norris’s performance was funny, insightful, and energetic. As the Bastard, she played the role of a sort of commentator, a connection between the action and the audience. This was done extremely well, as her charismatic acting style played well to this role. It is also notable that she played a male character in the play, an ironic twist on the way all roles were played by male actors in Shakespeare’s time. Her gender was never an issue, and while the character in the play was referred to as a male, the character’s gender did not matter. It was clear that the best actor was picked for the role, whatever their gender.
There were poignant observations about the creative and resonant staging of the battles, which Yu Hai found remarkable:
The scene…started with all the stage becoming darkened and only weak red light left in the background. Then the characters began to call out their lines one after another. Every character, when shouting their short lines, had a beam of light coming under his/her face. Characters’ lines were said in a very intense pace, even overlapped sometimes, and were accompanied by rhythmic drumbeats. The quick pace and flashing light were consistent with the intense, terrifying atmosphere in its warfare setting.
Among the deep voices of adult characters, young Arthur’s sharp screaming was highlighted. …. As the only child who got involved in this pursuit for power, he is the one who was supposed to master the power but showed least desire of it…. by highlighting Arthur’s shouting, the unreal joy with power strongly contrasted to the real pain of the innocent child.
Finally, several students drew intriguing connections between the production and current events. Elizabeth Quinn, for example, saw strong parallels:
Confusion is undoubtedly a significant recurring theme in the production… King John’s seemingly ill-fitting clothes, his recurring nervous tic of shrugging his shoulders, his constant need to glance over his shoulder for the approval of his mother…— all serve the purpose of helping to paint a picture of a leader who is in way over his head, and is painfully aware of it. If that maybe hits a little too close to home for some audience members, given the current state of the nation’s politics, good; it is more than a little unrealistic to expect that a theater right down the street from the Capitol would be able to resist the opportunity for a bit of political commentary. After all, isn’t trying to assassinate your 12-year-old nephew and potential rightful king…just the 11th century version of sending antagonistic tweets to other world leaders?
While initially, intellectually, I balked at that final suggested equivalence, I recognized (and appreciated) the deliberate and sardonic hyperbole. Until, less than a week later, refugee children were tear-gassed at the US-Mexico border, and the comparison struck me as both less far-fetched, and less funny. Lillian Ward-Packard’s conclusion struck a similarly sober note:
It’s possible that the Folger’s production of King John is meant to act as a quiet and comforting reminder that this too shall pass. After all, our history is marked by many epochs of bad politics and bad leadership, but we have survived all of them. Unfortunately, this restrained, cautious approach to that political commentary mostly serves as a reminder that hundreds of years after Shakespeare’s death, many of us are, as he likely was, still afraid to be too bold, too aggressive, or too subversive in our criticisms of our leadership. This too shall pass—but eventually, it will start all over again.
I am afraid—and I do not mean that figuratively—she is right.
Company website: https://www.folger.edu/folger-theatre