By William Shakespeare. Maybe.
Produced by Washington Shakespeare Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Karen Novack and Bruce Rauscher (Photo: Ray Gniewek)
Edward III was one of England’s most successful kings. To a remarkable degree, he is still remembered, six hundred thirty years after his death. The British celebrate him as much for his charm and impulsive acts of charity as they do for his victories in Scotland and France, and his image is well-preserved in paintings and coins.
Edward III, the play, has had a somewhat more checkered history. First appearing in print anonymously in 1596, the play had no author ascribed to it until 1760, when Edward Capell concluded that it was written by the most famous playwright of his, or any other, time. Those who reject his theory generally do so because they believe that its quality does not measure up to the quality of Shakespeare’s other work.
If those scholars had seen the magnificent Joe Banno-Washington Shakespeare Company production I saw last night, they might have been more willing to credit the play to Shakespeare.
Edward III is a play which calls out for a wise and understanding director and for superb actors at its core. In Banno and Bruce Alan Rauscher (Edward), Karen Novack (the Countess of Salisbury) and Jason McCool (Edward, the Black Prince), the play gets what it needs.
Edward III, functionally speaking, is two plays, both derived from the more-or-less simultaneous wars Edward conducted against Scotland and France. The far more interesting story involves Edward’s rescue of the Countess of Salisbury, who is being held captive by the leering, rapacious Scottish King David (Arthur Rowan) and his brother-in-rut, the Earl of Douglas (Parker Dixon). Having liberated her from these hilarious lowbrows, the King finds himself a prisoner of his own feelings towards the beautiful and brilliant Countess. After dismissing the efforts of the Court Poet (Brian Crane, doing fine work), the King expresses himself to her in his own homespun way. “A king,” he says piteously, “doth dote on thee.”
The Countess refuses him not out of choice but from moral necessity. She is bound before God to another (as is he, she points out) and she cannot break her vow without destroying who she is. The ensuing conflict between the King’s irresistible lust and the Countess’ immovable honor is an absolutely thrilling piece of theater, rendered perfectly by the authenticity which Rauscher and Novack bring to their roles. At one point the King takes advantage of the loyalty of the Countess’ father (the excellent Joe Palka) to enlist him to argue his case with the Countess; Palka captures the father’s meltdown beautifully. Eventually the Countess shows the King in unmistakable terms that she means what she says.
The second story of Edward III essentially shows the English going medieval on the French. The English invade; the French, despite enormous manpower advantages, find a way to botch things up – you’ve seen this story told, better, in Henry V. Banno wisely puts the focus of these scenes on Edward’s son, the Black Prince. Initially a sort of boisterous puppy dog of war, the Prince wonderingly discovers in battle that he has skills he never imagined he had. Later, finding himself outnumbered at 7 ½ to 1, he experiences real fear for the first time, and acquaints himself with the devices soldiers use to make themselves face things no human should rightly face. Victorious against these astonishing odds, the Black Prince emerges a little more perceptive, a little more mature – and a lot more ambitious, with plans for Spain and Turkey. Banno and McCool conspire to make these changes subtly, with great specificity, and the effect is utterly convincing. Edward III recedes for most of this Act, but he makes an appearance with his Queen (playwright Callie Kimball) towards the play’s end. Rauscher and Kimball present such concerto of looks, gestures, half-completed glances, stares and murmurs that it appears as though they have been performing these roles together for ten years.
Novack, McCool, Charles Young as King John of France, and most (though not all) of the supporting characters are absolutely first rate, but Rauscher gives the sort of transcendent performance that makes him instantly and forever identifiable in the role. Rauscher’s Edward is passionate, charismatic, decisive, quick to anger and to forgive; a compassionate monarch, every bit a king, and every bit a man. Through voice, gesture, timing, body language – every instrument available to the actor – he makes everything understandable, and palpable. There is a deeply disturbing passage at the top of the second Act in which Edward refuses to release troops to help his besieged son; if the Black Prince is killed, Edward airily avers, “we have more sons/Than one, to comfort our declining age.” This line seems uncharacteristic of the King, who loves his son, but in Rauscher’s delivery, leavened by a barely perceptible tremor, we immediately understand how much it costs for Edward to say it, and how he has begun to come to grips with his own old age. Rauscher’s performance is characterized by a hundred illuminating touches like this. He has elevated the ancient text, and makes it shine.
Banno stages this in the round, and in modern dress; David Ghatan’s minimalist set makes clever use of telephones and stenographic machines to speed communication among the characters. Andrew F. Griffin’s complex lighting design is the best I’ve ever seen at Washington Shakespeare Company. Honestly, there’s so much good stuff about this play that I cannot possibly stuff it all into this review. You’ll have to go see it yourself.
Edward III continues Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. at the Clark Street Playhouse in Arlington, VA until April 29. Tickets are $25 on Thursdays, $30 on Fridays and Sundays, $35 on Saturday evenings, and pay-what-you-can on Saturday afternoons. You can purchase tickets by calling 1.800.494.8497 or by visiting the WSC website.