King Johnmay be one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, but the tale of the relentless pursuit of power, and the cost of this pursuit, resonates throughout history. Given that it is currently being staged at the Folger Theatre, within shouting distance of the Capitol, this fable of flawed leadership will always be ripe in this capital city.
King John is, of course, the King John of Robin Hood fame, the King John forced to sign the Magna Carta by his nobles, and the King John who lived in the shadow of Richard the Lionheart, his elder brother. The Bard plays true to history’s stereotype, portraying John as a weak king. He lacks vigor, and Brian Dykstra highlights the indecisiveness of John—his king is plump, vacillating, and lacks sharp edges, physically embodying John’s clumsiness and paucity of will.
John’s legitimacy is questioned throughout—Arthur (Megan Graves), John’s nephew via another dead, older brother, challenges his right to the crown. John’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Kate Goehring), tells her son that the crown is “your strong possession much more than your right.” Others agree, with the meddlesome Philip, King of France (Howard Overshown), supporting Arthur’s claim to the throne but eventually leveraging his support to advance his own interests because, after all, that is the point of power.
And power is jousted over not only by the men, but also by the women. Eleanor, who wields considerable influence through her son, is juxtaposed against Arthur’s mother, Constance (Holly Twyford), who would wield the power her mother-in-law exercises should her son take the crown. Making the case for her son while confronting the rebuttal of Eleanor, who makes the respective case for her own son, Constance turns to Arthur and exclaims: “There’s a good grandam, boy, that would blot thee.”
John suffers from comparisons to Richard the Lionheart, who is dead when the play starts. The star of the show is Philip Faulconbridge (Kate Eastwood Norris), one of Richard’s bastards who radiates his father’s charisma. Norris plays Faulconbridge with great conviction, her delivery clear and Faulconbridge’s wit crisp, and she works the stage wonderfully. It is a tough role to play and, given Dykstra’s physical lampooning of John’s weaknesses, a different casting choice would have a Faulconbridge that physically towers over John, accentuating the blood of a greater man than his uncle. Despite that, Norris’ Faulconbridge injects resolve and strength into his uncle, especially as the world collapses around him.
Like other great Shakespeare commentators, Faulconbridge keeps a running commentary on the themes of the play. As he witnesses the barter of power, and the Kings of France and England bend their principles for personal gain, the bastard rails about “commodity,” that “bias of the world,” which makes these kings break their words. Faulconbridge declaims, “Since Kings break Faith upon commodity/Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee.” It is a valid point and a healthy motto for any aspiring K Street lobbyist.
Director Aaron Posner spreads the play beyond the Folger’s stage and has the actors engage the audience. The set is simple and sparse; scenic designer Andrew Cohen suspends a crown above a throne, a wonderful touch emphasizing the struggle for the English crown. This evening-length history lesson about one of England’s most famous kings entertains while barely touching upon the thing he is famous for—the Magna Carta.
To Dec. 2 at 201 East Capitol St. SE. $42–$79. (202) 544-7077. folger.edu.