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Reviewed by:
  • King Johnby William Shakespeare
  • Tamar LeRoy
King John. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Aaron Posner. Folger Shakespeare Theater. 10 23- 12 2018.

This production of King John(dir. by Aaron Posner) opens on a nearly bare stage centered by a wooden throne. The boards composing the throne are sharpened at the top to points that evoke, at once, the battlements of a castle, the walls of a city, and a medieval war-machine. Above the throne an oversized wrought iron crown, also severe and martial in appearance, is suspended from the ceiling and hangs slightly ajar. These details of the stage setting mesh well with the play's theme of the precarities of dynastic succession in a war-obsessed medieval Europe. The sparseness and lack of ornament suggest an atmosphere in which the constant alarms of war supplant softer concerns, and the ambiguously nineteenth-century or Edwardian costuming suggests that the world of the play extends far beyond the medieval past. As this is a play of Shakespeare's that is now seldom performed, it is very welcome that at the start of this performance, the actors explain their roles and a brief run-down of historical context starting with the yellow flower associated with the Plantagenet name (and worn as a nosegay by the Plantagenet line on stage to differentiate them from the enemy). This added section at the beginning sets the tone for the mix of humor, cruelty, and pathos that suffuses this production.

Although this production mostly follows Shakespeare's script, in the two battle scenes, familiar war-themed phrases and exclamations from other Shakespeare plays are added, such as "unto the breach" from Henry V. For these battles, the stage lighting is darkened except for glaring lights that resemble floodlights that are shined onto the audience from the stage. The participants of the battle yell phrases from other Shakespeare plays to create a sense of the disorder and chaos of the field, and the affect is unsettling and partly satirical. The phrase "unto the breach," for instance, which refers in siege warfare to the initial wave of soldiers that would enter a breach made in the wall of besieged defensive architecture, has complicated associations (Cahill, 4-6). The full exclamation from Henry V, made by the king to his troops, is "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, / Or close the wall up with our English dead" (Cahill, 4). Patricia Cahill suggests that while this "seems to posit a choice between two actions"—courageously mounting the breach or "certain death"—actually "the lines articulate only one possibility and only one very grim outcome" (Cahill, 5). The phrase was also picked up in twentieth-century wartime propaganda, as the Fall 2018 exhibit at the [End Page 117]Folger, Churchill's Shakespeare, points out. In the glee the nobles in the performance take in shouting these rousing phrases, one detects a hint of Blackadder-esque satire. Perhaps recalling the use of travestiroles in the eighteenth century, two major male roles—the Bastard (illegitimate son of Richard Coeur de Lion) and the young prince Arthur—are played by actresses in this performance. These two cross-dressed roles are played seriously and are notably not sexualized, giving them wider interpretive range. The awareness that Arthur, for instance, is played by an adult actress shows the complexity of the role. Arthur's playful games and banter with Hubert (when Hubert is tasked with slaying the child) functions on multiple levels; his banter comes off as innocent play while also amounting to a more mature navigation of a treacherous emotional landscape. And the cross-dressed performance of the Bastard especially fits with this character's ability to attach himself to the nobility but also stand outside their entrenched perspectives, to serve as both commentator and participant to the conflicts in the play. His airy, ironic, and self-possessed quality (since he is illegitimate and ambiguously gendered) fits with his attachment to England in the abstract over personal aggrandizement, or "that sly devil … Commodity, the bias of the world" (Shakespeare, 2.1.594; 602). The Bastard's cross-gendered embodiment reiterates this, making him seem less weighed...


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pp. 117-120
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