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Home :: Archive :: 1999 :: February ::
Re: King John (Play and Performance)
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.0224  Wednesday, 10 February 1999.

[1]     From:   Kristen L. Olson <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 9 Feb 1999 11:17:51 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   More on KJ

[2]     From:   Jimmy Jung Jimmy" <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 09 Feb 1999 11:43:24 -0500
        Subj:   King John (the performance).....

[3]     From:   Geralyn Horton <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 09 Feb 1999 11:37:40 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0221 Re: King John

[4]     From:   Edward Gero <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 9 Feb 1999 13:47:17 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   I am the Bastard

[5]     From:   Hardy M. Cook <
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        Date:   Tuesday, February 9, 1999
        Subj:   Review of KING JOHN


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kristen L. Olson <
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Date:           Tuesday, 9 Feb 1999 11:17:51 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        More on KJ

A semi-lurker myself, I nevertheless feel somewhat compelled to respond
to David Maier's "defense" of KJ, since he quoted a few of my more
apparent critical phrases (plus, whenever cause someone's "greatest
passion" to be "ignited" I can't just sit by...)

I was essentially writing in support of the production, but not, I had
hoped, to the detriment of the play.  I think there's a lot in KJ that
resonates in very interesting ways with all of the history plays, H5 in
particular, at the conceptual level and at the linguistic level.  In
some ways, too, I might argue it offers "more" than many of the
more-championed histories in its female characters: Elinor is quite
powerful, I'd like to see a production that plays this aspect up more
(this would, for instance, make an interesting discussion when
contrasted with H5--the claim Hal makes to France is in many ways
reflected, or "pre-flected" in Elinor's interests and machinations.
Also, as a character she's much closer to Richard III than, say,
Margaret, and to contrast her with the other female characters in this
and similar plays would make very interesting discussion.)  I do still
think, however, that the play does not connect with or move an audience
or reader the way many of Shakespeare's other works do, sometimes
DESPITE a performance.  About the stage-energy inherent in the play
David asserts:

"And so, Shakespeare prepares this dish, the one person with the
leadership qualities so desperately needed in the realm. But we can't
partake of [Bastard] because he is ineligible for the throne. And his
presence
through the ensuing decay is an aching reminder of our hunger."

I would question whether the audience really feels this hunger so deeply
on an emotive level-while there's plenty of "juicy" language in KJ, I
don't sense it to be as emotive as in moments of other plays:

"Now is the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world.  Now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on"  (Hamlet.  I'm guessing at the
lineation, etc.  Anyway..)

The way in which these lines are paced, and how they balance/ play off
of one another does a lot more to telegraph emotion than any of the
explanatory text in KJ does.  KJ is not without passion-it is, I would
argue, replete with it, but I think the actors that I watched struggled
to try to convey this intensity, or rather gave expert performances that
suggested they had clearly thought through how to convey this intensity
because the lines don't do it for them quite as easily.  Philip Goodwin
chose to show John's demise by accentuating the physicality of his
decay, even picking up on the "foot" image in the closing lines David
has quoted by appearing barefoot in the final scenes, his feet
eventually unable to convey his body any longer.  Edward Gero chose to
play the Bastard as a similarly metamorphosing character, emphasizing a
change in his physical carriage as he grew closer to the legitimization
of his nobility.  I suspect this choice was made to balance him against
John, but even on its own such a choice raises all sorts of interesting
questions in performance that this and other plays put before the
readers/hearers of them regarding legitimacy, nobility, body
natural/body politic, etc.  But, Gero's choice, I felt, also had the
advantage of allowing him "closer" to the audience; we thus become
invested in him because we "want to", not just since the play "tells us
to".  We also felt the pain of John's degradation, an interesting
juxtaposition and thus reflection on the lineage/leadership issues at
stake.  Not to mention Arthur's compelling vulnerability, presented as
the physically "real" vulnerability of an actual child on stage.

In comparison, there was clearly something in the Tygres Heart Co's
production that David mentions that was able to move the play, and him
quite deeply.  I guess I would ask what elements of the production made
these contributions to its overall "effect"?  Was it a particular
performance of a character?  A shaping of the production that emphasized
a particular idea or relationship?  (Not that I mean to suggest here an
"either/or" proposition...)  I'd like to hear what helped the production
achieve this influence.  I think many of us are drawn to Shakespeare
because it is poetry AND theatre; when these elements come together, the
experience is the most moving-and in Shakespeare you get that
confluence, that balance, more than anywhere.  When it doesn't happen,
we get disappointed and want to know why.  When it does, we get excited
and want to know why.  To get caught up in the "valuation" of these
experiences is perhaps the proverbial slippery slope-but talk about the
comparative effect of the experience of imagining these ideas and
emotions presented to us is, I think, an infinitely productive
activity.  (Play rousing music here...)

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Jimmy Jung Jimmy" <
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Date:           Tuesday, 09 Feb 1999 11:43:24 -0500
Subject:        King John (the performance).....

I'm excited by all the response to the King John review, although I have
to admit, I slapped my review together based on illegible notes scrawled
on my program.  In particular, I was intrigued by Kristen Olson's
review, which captured what I was thinking, but was a lot more
articulate.

Naturally, I was also very interested in David Maier's defense of the
play, which I found provided numerous insights and certainly makes the
play more interesting.  The idea of the bastard as a Mr. Smith goes to
Washington character was particularly useful. Jimmy Stewart's down-home
nobility would have been more successful that the comic characterization
that some of us have objected to.

I am particularly troubled by the notion that if we did not like the
play, the fault lies in the performance.  I believe that Kristen Olson
and I said almost exactly the opposite: "the company did an excellent
job with a play that is performatively rather flat."  My particular
objections to the jerky war/wedding/war movement of the plot and
Cardinal Pandulph, who I characterized as a plot device are faults that
willing to assign to Shakespeare and I'm confused when David Maier says,
"these 'peculiar plot choices' ARE the play!," and then cites it as
 evidence that the play was not well performed.  I should add that the
local media has raved about the production this way, "Shakespeare's
genius isn't in full flower with "King John," which opened Monday at the
Shakespeare Theater, but Michael Kahn's is."  Michael Kahn is the
director.  The full review is at:
http://search.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/WPlate/1999-01/27/082l-012799-idx.html

Like Mike Jensen, I believe fewer performances suggests a lesser play,
but hey, it's still Shakespeare.  Let me compare him to my other
favorite poet, Bruce Springsteen.  Springsteen just released "Tracks" a
compilation of B-sides and songs he decided not to put on earlier
albums.  By definition, a lesser work that could never touch the
nobility or grandeur of "Born to Run," but it is still Springsteen and
I'm still making my friends crazy playing the album over and over.  So
if you want to see an excellent production of a rarely produced but only
pretty good play by a really good playwright (and you are in town); then
I suggest the Shakespeare Theater's King John.

jimmy

PS: Two things I have discovered you definitely cannot read at the beach
are King John and One Hundred Years of Solitude, especially if you're
playing Springsteen real loud.

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Geralyn Horton <
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Date:           Tuesday, 09 Feb 1999 11:37:40 -0500
Subject: 10.0221 Re: King John
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0221 Re: King John

> I think all those with experience of the play deserve respect for
> their informed opinions.  They have had an experience you have not.
> David, if you think about that, I'm sure you will agree.

FWIW, I saw Stewart Vaughan's KJ in Central Park a few seasons back, and
thought it made a very good case for the play.

G.L.Horton <http://www.tiac.net/users/ghorton>

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Edward Gero <
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Date:           Tuesday, 9 Feb 1999 13:47:17 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        I am the Bastard

I read with interest, (and some astonishment) the debate over the
production of King John and the particular controversy over my
performance as Faulconbridge.  Although to date I thought better to
restrain myself from defending myself or the production, I feel the time
has been reached to do set respond and set the record straight.

Let me first respond to the criticism that Faulconbridge is not funny
and in my representation 'too much a country-bumpkin' and 'lacking
nobility.' The comic moments are abundant in the text. Clearly, it is
Shakespeare's comic touch to have Faulconbridge say to his brother in
front of the King upon his first entrance, 'If Old Sir Robert did beget
us both, and were our father, And this son like him, O, old Sir Robert,
father, on my knee, I give heaven thanks I was not like to thee.' A sure
fire laugh every night.  John himself responds by calling Faulconbridge
'madcap.' Limoges refers to him as cracker', abundance of superfluous
breath.' His line Sir Robert could have ate his part in me upon Good
Friday and ne'er broke his fast,' gets a great laugh every night and it
is Shakespeare's.  That line is not far from Lucio's to the Duke: He
would eat mutton on Friday's, say that I said so.  Further witness his
bawdy reply to his brother's assertion that King Richard emloy'd his
father much by retorting: Your tale must be how he employ'd my mother!
His satirical first speech reveals how he 'sucks his teeth' rather than
use a toothpick.  And his repetitions 'of hang a calves' on those
recreant limbs' during the marriage celebration of the Dolphin and
Blanche are clearly written to break the tension with Pandolph, France
and John.  It is, in fact, his only utterances in the entire scene.  He
is bawdy, crass, iconoclastic and a self-described possessor of country
manners.' He truly 'means to learn,' and does.  Not funny?  My God, get
a sense of humor!

I believe the woman hit it when she saw how my Bastard grows into his
nobility.  And I thank her for her words.  I see and attempt to play him
as a hero of becoming, not of become.  He is dynamic, not static and the
best way to show that growth in the theatre is in physical terms as a
matter of behavior.  He grows into stillness, that is intentional, his
inner nobility is revealed as layers are stripped away through the
trials of war, avenging his father, and finding his way out of the maze
where he has lost his way amid the thorns and dangers of this world,'
after Arthur's death.  I chose to have this Faulconbridge,  as Bloom
suggests, "invented" in front of the eyes of the audience,  not fully
formed from the beginning.  I believe the audience thereby travels with
him on his "hero's journey" of separation, initiation and return.  I
believe that is why he is such likeable a character.  He learns, as we
would, who he is and what he is made of, making his "at-one-ment" with
the father, becoming the father,  and  reaching the height of his power
in the two handed scene with King John  late in the play when he evokes
the lion-heart in the speech

        "What, shall they seek the lion in his den
        To fright him there?  And make him tremble there?
        Oh, let it not be said.  Forage and run...

And so on.  He utters the prescription for leadership which the Bastard
perhaps has a genetic predisposition to know by virtue of his father but
come to understand it experientially through time, a vista, on stage.

There is also one glaring error.  It was reported that my Faulconbridge
kills Limoges in the back, and thereby ignoble.  That couldn't be
further from the truth. I would like to set the record straight on that
matter.  There are four blows in the combination of the choreography.
The first blow is from the back, however, had the viewer looked he may
have noticed that Limoges, sword fully extended, was about to slay an
enemy English soldier. That blow came as a defense of a comrade's life.
Certainly noble and laudatory. Limoges after all is the enemy.  Should
Faulconbridge have waited politely and "nobly" for him to kill his
comrade first?  It was in fact, a stun from which Limoges reels round to
fight and only then receives a cutting blow to the stomach from a battle
ax, face to face.  Limoges is felled as the blade is withdrawn from his
gut and the last killing blow is in motion as Limoges faces up, and
freezes as the axe is about to smash his face. This whole sequence is
rendered in slow motion, so it astounds me that the viewer missed what
is clear, slow and obvious.  That writer is dead wrong.

Although I am flattered that a performance of mine is worthy enough
notice to have stirred a controversy for this forum, I must say the
audience reaction to the performance and production is clear and
unanimous every night.  It is, in fact, overwhelming.  Never before, in
my 16 year tenure at the Shakespeare Theatre, have I been met with what
I can only call roars of approval each evening as I bow.  And as far as
the production in general goes, it is the hottest ticket in town.  King
John plays to sold out houses nightly.  Audiences get it and rave about
it.  King John, a hit.  Unbelievable, but true.  A weak play?  Perhaps.
But clearly a bold and popular rendering.

Perhaps the difficulty for some is the inability to accept the notion
(Shakespearean as is All's Well That Ends Well)  that nobility resides
in ones 'inner motion' and is not evidenced by neither manners nor
station. Ask Judith Martin.  She is eloquent on the subject.

Edward Gero
Shakespeare Theatre
Washington, DC

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Hardy M. Cook <
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Date:           Tuesday, February 9, 1999
Subject:        Review of KING JOHN

The following review of the Shakespeare Theatre's KING JOHN by Roger
Meersman, with whom I took a graduate seminar in theatre, appeared in
the Friday, February 5, 1999, Journal Newspapers of the suburban
Washington, D.C., area. Meersman awarded the production four stars.

"Shakespeare Theatre's royal 'King John'"
By ROGER MEERSMAN
Journal theater critic

Improve upon Shakespeare? Highly improbable. But, once again, Michael
Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre, has done just that
with his current production of the seldom-seen "King John."

With profound insight into the workings of Shakespeare's plays and what
is required to translate them onto the stage for modern audiences, Kahn
has inspired the incredible artistic resources of his theater to produce
a "King John" of blazing clarity and feral intensity.

All the arts of the theater are shown to their best advantage here as
they shine individually and contribute to one glorious production. The
standards for Shakespearean productions have been raised again. Just how
high can they go? Only Kahn knows.

All of Shakespeare's plays provide unlimited opportunity for fascinating
research and detailed discussions of his sources, the development of his
characters and plots; the intellectual, philosophical, religious and
political base of his expressed ideas; and speculation into the
relationship between the events in his plays and actual history.

But, theater audiences are equally, if not more, concerned with how the
script credited to Shakespeare plays on the stage today. In production
after production, Kahn has demonstrated that although he is firmly
grounded in the literary value of the Shakespearean play, he never loses
sight of the necessity to make the play come to life today. He
recognizes that today's audiences are probably more interested in the
theatrical validity of what is being presented than in the literary.

The basic text for this production is taken from what appears in the
folio edition of 1623. With this as his starting point, Kahn has
incorporated material from two plays generally credited with being
sources for Shakespeare's "King John"-John Bale's "John, King of
England" (c. 1538-39) and the anonymous drama, "The Troublesome Raigne
of John King of England" (1591).

The time period of "King John" (1199-1216) is the earliest depicted in
Shakespeare's works, and "King John" his only history in which the time
of the play coincides with the actual reign of the monarch. It is safe
to assume that American audiences today would bring little specific
knowledge of King John and his period to the production.

Recognizing that today's audiences are more interested in the psychology
of the main character rather than in the historical accuracy of the
events depicted in the play, Kahn has reshaped "King John" as a coherent
investigation and exploration into the human psyche. Thus, he starts his
adaptation differently from the piece by Shakespeare.

Kahn's version opens with a massive painting of the former King Richard
dominating the stage. The lights come up behind the portrait and King
John (Philip Goodwin) is discovered in a pensive mood, overwhelmed by
the ghostly apparition of King Richard. John is singing the following
refrain:

  Fire, fire, fire, fire, fire
Lo here I burn in such desire,
That all the tears that I can strain
Out of mine idle empty brain,
 cannot allay my scorching pain.

This opening clearly frames the play primarily within the inner workings
of John's mind rather than in the historical events, and tells us that
the portrayal of the characters will be of more than ordinary
significance in creating a successful production.

The continual oppression of Richard is reinforced with the arrival of
Ambassador Chantillion (Paul Morella) from King Philip of France (Floyd
King), demanding that King John surrender his crown to Arthur, duke of
Brittany (Derek Kahn Thompson), the young, innocent son of John's
deceased older brother, Geoffrey. John refuses to recognize Arthur as
the rightful heir to the throne and he begins his plans to invade
France.

John is supported in his efforts to keep the throne by his mother, Queen
Eleanor (Tana Hicken), grandmother to Arthur and bitter enemy of
Constance (Jennifer Harmon), Arthur's mother and Geoffrey's widow.

John - cowardly, weak and thoroughly despicable- knights Philip the
Bastard (Edward Gero), the illegitimate son of Richard, as Sir Richard
Plantagenet. Sir Richard is an incredibly good, dedicated, thoroughly
honorable Englishman who holds loyalty to the king as a paramount
virtue.

Throughout the play, the world is constantly in turmoil. John's attempt
to conquer Angiers fails. John and the French king agree to join forces
against Angiers, and a marriage between the dauphin (Sean Arbuckle) and
John's niece Blanche (Laurena Mullins) unifies the two kings. The peace
doesn't last long, because Cardinal Pandulph (Ted van Griethuysen)
threatens to excommunicate John because he would not seat the proper
Archbishop of Canterbury, and the cardinal orders the French to fight
the English because of John's refusal to follow the pope's orders.

John's villainy increases and he orders Hubert (Andrew Long) to burn out
young Arthur's eyes, but Hubert doesn't have the heart to do it.
Eventually. to secure Pandulph's aid against the French, John gives up
his crown to the papal legate on Ascension-day and then receives it back
in fief. In the end, John dies from poison at the hands of a monk in the
orchard at Swinstead Abbey, and the crown passes to his son, Henry
(Roger Kraus). Thus, the play begins with John's ascension to the throne
and ends with his death. It is complete.

Because the events of the play depict constant turmoil, designer Ming
Cho Lee has created a perfectly balanced symmetrical set that provides a
secure framework in which to confine and intensify the explosive action
and overpowering emotional situations. Solid colors solidify the world
against which the action is seen.

Howell Binklry's lights are not only supportive of Lee's scenery but
also reinforce the changing moods. And when you watch David Leong's
extraordinary fight scenes, you realize just how important are Binkley's
lighting and Adam Wenick's music to creating the desired emotional
impact.

Robert Perdziola's costumes give credibility to the characters and
anchor them in the desired period.

But, eventually, we are riveted by the consummate acting of each
individual member of the cast. The synergy among Goodwin, Gero, Hicken,
Harmon, King, van Griethuysen and the rest of the large cast creates an
ensemble few theaters could equal.
 

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