Four hundred years ago, William Shakespeare wrote a play about a King four hundred years before him, and thus in King John we are thrust into a barely imaginable past, before the invention of English, where Kingdoms could be won or lost in the course of a season.
It is a bold company which seeks to bring this seldom-performed play before an audience, and a bolder one which initiates its first full season with this challenging piece. I’m happy to report that Silver Spring’s 4615 Theatre has, with a couple of notable exceptions, met this challenge in a highly satisfactory way.
The Bard conflated history in this play in order to bring out the drama in the reign of King John, England’s seventh Norman King. By way of recap (and recap is important, as 4615 is doing this play in rep with The Lion in Winter, a play about John’s father, Henry II), John was the youngest of the King’s five sons. Three of those men died before Henry; the third son, Richard the Lion-hearted, succeeded Henry but spent much of his reign fighting in the Crusades. Richard, who was without an heir, designated Arthur, the 4-year-old son of his late brother Geoffrey, as his heir. But when Arthur’s regents proved unpopular, John ingratiated himself into power. When Richard died, John took the crown.
To understand the play, you must understand the complicated relationship between England and France at the time. The Plantagenets were a Norman family; the Court language was French, and although England’s King occupied a great deal of what is now France he did so, technically, as a vassal of the French King, Philip II. Thus the French considered themselves as stakeholders not only for the English territory in France, but in the English throne itself.
So the story opens with the French emissary, Chatillon (Ned Read), spitting out the French King’s demand that John (Seth Rosenke) surrender the crown in favor of Arthur (Will Anderson), now a young teenager who is clearly under the control of Philip. John acidly declines, and soon the English army is on French soil. The two armies fight inconclusively, and when John and his mother, the still-powerful Eleanor of Aquitaine (Peg Nichols), palaver with Philip (Brendan McMahon) and Louis (Jack Russ), the Dauphin, they reach a peace settlement. The Dauphin will marry the King’s niece Blanche (Morgan Sendek), and John will bestow some French lands on them as dowry.ezcol_1third]
closes August 5, 2017
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As you might imagine, this settlement discommodes Lady Constance (Jacqueline Chenault), Geoffrey’s widow, Arthur’s mother and a near hysteric. (Arthur himself seems indifferent to the crown). More importantly, Pope Innocent III’s representative, Cardinal Pandulph (John Burghardt) is displeased, principally because John has refused to recognize the Pope’s choice for Archbishop of Canterbury. John, whose idea of diplomacy is ethnic scorn and murder, does not respond to Pandulph’s satisfaction. Pandulph excommunicates John, and threatens to interdict France if Philip is unwilling to go to war against him.
But I’ve left out the best part: Philip the Bastard (James Allen Kerr), a delightful scoundrel who traces his paternity to the late Richard. He comes to our attention as a result of a dispute he has with his ostensible brother, Robert Faulconbridge (Charlie Cook) over the estate of his ostensible father. Although it is clear that Richard, and not the senior Faulconbridge, is his father, John rules that under English law since Philip was born in wedlock he is irrebuttably presumed to be the child of his mother’s husband (this is the law in many states today, by the way.) But Eleanor sees a spark within him, and induces him to give up his Faulconbridge claims and instead, seek adventure and power as a member of the Plantagenet clan. Philip agrees, and therefore gives himself over to glee and murder, putting steel in John’s spine where it does not occur naturally.
Thereafter: war, fistfights, swordfights, plotting, treason, murder, more plotting, shifting alliances — all of which 4615 does with verve and aplomb in the Highland Theatre’s tiny space, under director Jordan Friend’s steady hand. Kerr, in one of the best roles in the canon, is particularly effective: in his portrayal, Philip’s bloodthirstiness is somewhere between a song and a sacrament. Despite Philip’s brutality, we cheer for him because he always wins, and always has a great time doing so. It is sort of a perverse gift for Kerr to play him so effectively, but it is a great gift nonetheless.
In fact, almost all the principal roles are done with great effectiveness. Rosenke gives John a sort of whiny nature — not necessarily drawn from the text of King John, and not from history (John was often petty but not whiny) but very much in keeping with John’s character in The Lion in Winter, in which Rosenke also plays John. Other actors playing the same role in Lion as they play in John are Nichols as Eleanor and McMahon as Philip. They do fine work in this play, as does Chenault — who resists the temptation to go over the top despite playing a character who seems to come out of Greek drama — Anderson, a young actor who plays the bewildered boy Arthur with a sort of terrified grace, Cook, in multiple roles, Read, Russ, and Nick Torres, who plays a minion instructed, to his horror, to kill young Arthur.
I am sorry to report that I found John Burghardt entirely ineffective as Cardinal Pandulph — so much so that I wondered, briefly, if his mumbling disengagement was some sort of odd directorial instruction. (I concluded that it couldn’t be since the rest of the direction was spot-on). Of course, Pandulph is all connivance and no passion, and his aspect and mien should be different from the shouters and the fighters on stage. But Burghardt was no passion and no interest. Pandulph, done correctly, takes pleasure from wielding his arrogance and power, but Burghardt’s Pandulph seemed as though he was uncomfortable speaking to the monarchs and their courts, and couldn’t wait to get back to his Breviary. I see from the program notes that Burghardt is a teacher of Shakespeare, but being an expert in the Bard does not mean that you can play him, any more than knowing about boxing would put you in good stead against Anthony Joshua.
At a few points in the production I saw, actors were fighting their lines — not entirely unexpected on opening night with a cast charged with learning two plays. Things likely will improve in time.
A few final historical notes. When the French and English gather to talk, Philip, now known as Sir Richard, baits a man (Cook) identified as “Austria”, it may not be clear what the source of his hostility is. This is because the production has eliminated the lines in which we learn that “Austria” is the man who killed Richard the lion-hearted, which is why Austria wears a cloak made of lion skin. In actual fact, it was a young boy who killed Richard with a cross-bow. Richard forgave him, but we have no record of what happened to him.
Most of the characters in the play existed in history, although Shakespeare accorded them different roles than history did. Pandulph was a Bishop, not a Cardinal; Shakespeare may have confused him with Cardinal Pandulph Masca of Pisa, who died before these events. Richard did have an out-of-wedlock son known as Philip of Cagnoc, but Philip never had the gaudy adventures Shakespeare describes.
King John by William Shakespeare, directed by Jordan Friend, assisted by Matt Meyers . Featuring Seth Rosenke, James Allen Kerr, Brendan McMahon, Jack Russ, Jacqueline Chenault, Will Anderson, Nick Torres, Peg Nichols, Charlie Cook, Anna DiGiovanni, Matt Meyers, John Burghardt, Ned Read, Morgan Sendek, and Andrew White . Scenic design: Nathaniel Sharer . Lighting design: E-hui Woo . Sound design: Caroline McQuaig and Jordan Friend . Costume design: Jeanette Christiensen . Wardrobe supervisor . Skylor Bee Latty . Movement: Paige Washington . Fight choreography: Jordan Friend . Stage manager . Abi Rowe . Produced by 4615 Theatre Company . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.