"Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.
" Act V, scene vii
|Chicago Shakespeare Theatre ; March 28, 2004 Chicago, Illinois|
Reviewed on : 2004-03-29 13:45:59 ; Reviewed by : Margarete Mandry
|March 20–June 6, 2004 |
Directed by: Barbara Gaines
As an evaluation of political maneuverings, Shakespeare’s King John history play exhibits the familiar subjects of usurpation, civil unrest and the back-stair plotting that colored monarchial rule even into the 20th century. There is even today something devastatingly familiar about the decision to launch war to cement a possibly faulty claim to power.
Both the mothers function as the power behind the throne. Queen Eleanor of Acquitaine, no slouch in her own right, exhibits an iron will as played by Linda Kimbrough. She is largely responsible for King John’s position, and it is through her will that he retains that position. She will let nothing stand in her way, and the need for control makes her appear heartless. There is no softness about her to mitigate her cruelty. It makes her a frightening and monstrous creature.
Constance, however, played with passion and despair by Lisa Dodson, cracks under the pressure. Betrayed by all her allies, she takes refuge in madness and thereby abandons her son Arthur to his fate. As his only protector, once she withdraws, he is vulnerable to anyone seeking to consolidate his position. As was so often the case in English history, the child-heir to the throne is usually dispatched in some sneaky fashion so that he cannot grow up to cause trouble. Young Arthur himself is portrayed by Zachary Gray, whose powers of concentration and understanding of the role is truly remarkable for one his age.
Greg Vinkler’s King John is a powerful figure whose multi-faceted portrayal makes it impossible to pigeon-hole him as the two-dimensional usurper of the history books. Mr. Vinkler takes John from cocky optimism through worry and doubt and finally to dying despair with ease and presents us with a full-fleshed character that exhibits all the human emotions. Although a leader, John is also a little boy on the playground starting fights, and also defers to his mother— indeed depends on her to secure his power base.
Philip the bastard, ably portrayed by Timothy Kane, also runs the gamut from opportunism through disillusion before ending up a humble subject— not subjugated, but realizing his true place in the world. He is apparently the only one who survives and has learned the lessons that greed for power teaches.
On the French side, David Lively’s King Philip is torn about which alliance to make. He cannot see which is the true claim, so ends by betraying Arthur and siding with John in return for Land, in the mistaken belief that this is best for the country. But when faced with papal indignation, he quickly withdraws to leave the resulting war in his son’s hands, the dauphin Lewis, portrayed by James Fitzgerald. Philip is the more typical monarch, and Mr. Lively has given him just a tinge of the lily-livered fop.
As is often the case, war is the outcome of some kind of royal pissing contest, with all others to be sacrificed in order not to lose face and to hold on to power. By the end, Constance has gone mad, civil unrest is rampant, and poor Arthur has taken the only way out he knows, given his position, and dies trying to escape his prison. In this act he sparks yet more war and unrest.
The decision to set the play in the 20th century adds new dimension to the political maneuverings and colors the characters’ actions with the audience’s interpretations. The references to sham elections, political rallies, and arbitrarily chosen alliances brings to mind the European state of affairs at the beginning of World War I. The Russians were embroiled in their own revolution, the Turks were fighting for independence, Spain would soon after mount its own civil war and the rest of Europe would be plunged into war for what essentially amounted to revenge. Unfortunately, royals who indulge in personal vendettas sacrifice whole countries, rather than just themselves. Yet all the while, one is aware that although the outward trappings may change, the politics themselves have not changed unduly over the centuries; callousness, brutality and the greed for power still reign supreme.
Christian Schussele, 1858
Hubert and Arthur
|Oregon Shakespeare Festival|
July 26, 2006
|Stratford Festival of Canada|
August 6, 2004
|Chicago Shakespeare Theatre|
March 28, 2004