King John is almost never staged, and there’s a reason: Everything Shakespeare does in it, he did better elsewhere. The materials are those of the early history plays that made him famous, while the deadpan, ironic tone clearly belongs to the same transitional period as Troilus and Cressida and All’s Well That Ends Well. Half the goings-on seem to be dry runs for the great plays of Shakespeare’s maturity; the other half have the flat look of clichés run through the recycling machine once too often. The Bastard of Falconbridge, whose snide commentary dominates the action, is a rough sketch for Thersites; King Philip of France, with his dignity and piety, is a Henry V blurred by translation; the vindictive Queen Eleanor a markdown Margaret of Anjou. John himself, the gangster king trailing scraps of guilty conscience, is barely more than new hot water poured over the used grounds of Richard III.
Under the circumstances, the hard part is finding a reason to produce King John for itself. As a set of notes on the rest of Shakespeare, it’s always fascinating, while the new phrases in which it rings the familiar changes on the familiar situations can be a great relief. In the long run, though, the originals always win out. Theatre for a New Audience’s production of King John, staged by Karin Coonrod, is only my second encounter with the play in 33 years, but I mean no disrespect to Coonrod or her company when I say I would have preferred my 18th King Lear or my 25th Richard III.
Not that Coonrod has done everything right. Her opening image is of the cast playing touch football with the crown, and she makes a fairly consistent effort all evening to take the hauteur out of the speeches, to keep action and diction where American audiences won’t be put off by their alien grandiosity. Commendable as the effort may be, it raises almost as many problems as it solves. The pompous arm-waving and bellowing that puts Americans off Shakespeare isn’t authentically Shakespearean; it dates from the steady enlargement of the London theaters that began in the mid 18th century. The 20th century’s innovative Shakespeare productions were a series of efforts to reconnect the high-flying wordage with the low motives behind it. The difficulty was, and remains, how to sort the grandeur from the grandiosity. Shakespeare’s kings don’t act and speak like commoners because they were raised to comport themselves with kingly dignity, just as he was raised to write plays in a time that—for all its efforts at pleasing the groundlings—saw playwriting as the dramatic arm of an art, known to all cultivated souls, called poetry. Without the combination of high and low, we wouldn’t have Shakespeare. Taking out all the grandeur and keeping only the baseness ends in messes like Matthew Warchus’s RSC Hamlet—with all its poetic value pruned away, the play was reduced to a third-rate Godfather rip-off in blank verse.
Coonrod does better than that, at any rate. She hews to the text instead of hacking away at it. Playing in the round, on a largely bare stage, she pours the action into the aisles and onto the overhead balconies, giving the spectators at least a lively sense of involvement. By the end, her efforts at clearance have paid off. What we’re left with is the script’s own set of interlocked, unsmiling ironies: Wars are fought, oaths are broken, those who urge war switch sides and plead for peace, and it all makes not much difference, except to people whose loved ones get killed as a result. The crown that sat shakily on John’s head at the beginning will sit just as shakily on his son Henry’s after his death. The only news is that there is no news—or rather that the news is always the same. True as this may be, it doesn’t keep plays alive in the repertoire.
Great acting could. King John‘s great roles, unfortunately, are of the rhetorically showy kind, but with the rhetoric occurring only in flashes, constantly dampened by the hardheaded irony, so that it can never electrify the evening. And it’s in just these roles that Coonrod’s cast struggles with the issue of guts versus grandeur, each performer—a stiff directorial criticism—fighting his or her own losing battle. The struggle is most visible in Ned Eisenberg, a wonderful actor of New York street types, who plays John: For him, every speech is a battlefield, with the tough, street-smart kid who won that touch football game always on the verge of throttling the somber monarch all of whose pentameters are in place. Though never uninteresting, the results are inevitably schizoid. Myra Carter’s warlike Queen Eleanor, not half so complex, is a cranky, thick-tongued old lady you could see on any urban street, irate over the non-arrival of her Social Security check. The school of empty grandeur is represented by Pamela Nyberg as Constance, mother of the prince who gets murdered. Constance is an unhappy woman, and Nyberg, rather than looking for an action to animate her, just bangs you over the head with her unhappiness, like a cartoon sledgehammer labeled “Imitative Fallacy.”
Most annoying of all, as he nearly throws away the play’s best role, is Derek Smith, the last two-thirds of whose Bastard of Falconbridge make up a strong, lucid, energizing performance. What they can’t make up for is the first third, in which Smith chooses to tackle the character as a multiple-choice exam: His first choice, lurching and guttural, is Frankenstein’s monster with wisecracks, followed by Huck Finn and, when he’s left alone to revel in his newfound knighthood, by a manic unfunniness that suggests life backstage with Danny Kaye. During all this, barely a line of what he says and does makes any human sense at all. The audience’s bond with Falconbridge, so vital for following both his twisted character and the twisty sequence of events, is never forged.
Under such circumstances, the roles that sound only a few simple notes invariably come off best: Mark Vietor makes the French king’s pious dignity true and gripping; Bruce Turk catches both the Dauphin’s fervor and his sourly comic disillusionment; Neil Maffin is an astringent, angry Salisbury, Nicholas Kepros a smoothly cagey Pandulph, Michael Ray Escamilla well-spoken as the play’s several child characters. Michael Rogers, as Hubert, strikes the best balance of all the principals, sustaining his grander passages with taut, grim-lipped simplicity. When loftier emotions take over Hubert, you can hear the thunder start to roll in Rogers’s voice, but he resolutely fights off the temptation to rant. There’s probably a moral in that, but no sensible critic would draw a moral after seeing King John.