Twelve years ago, on election night between Senator Gore and Governor Bush, we attended the Shakespeare Theatre’s production of King John. This was our first experience of Shakespeare’s early history play about the right of succession of the crown of England. At the intermission, the house manager came on the public address system and asked if the audience wanted to know the results of the Florida primary, which had just been announced. The audience applauded in confirmation: Al Gore had won Florida and the election appeared to be leaning his way by a hair. The next morning, the “hanging chad” crisis arose, leading to a Supreme Court decision which essentially governed the election and the course of history for the past decade. Twelve years later, we face another election balanced on the finest fulcrum, and we attend another production of King John at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA. To what result will we awake tomorrow?
For history buffs, King John is about who would follow as king after Henry II died. Recall that ASC recently produced Lion in Winter, the contemporary pre-quell to King John. Henry had set his son Henry on the thrown, but then he died. His son Richard I become king, but then dies. His son Geoffrey had also died, but left a son, Arthur who lives in France. Henry’s last son, John, takes the thrown. That leaves Arthur, favored by Phillip II, King of France and championed by his mother Constance, and Philip Faulconbridge, the bastard son of Richard, favored by his mother Lady Faulconbridge and Queen Eleanor to contest John’s reign. So, is set the contest between Philip, the warrior, Arthur, the intellectual, and John, still the mamby-pamby boy, to duke out the play.
One aspect of the productions of Lion in Winter and King John that we wanted to see at ASC was how they used the cast in both productions. Playing in repertory they could use the actors for similar roles. John (John Harrell) and Queen Eleanor (Tracy Hostmyer) carried over their roles, with 15 or 20 years of living and squabbling between plays. Mr. Harrell takes is adolescent Prince John from Lion in Winter to into manhood, with the pretense of authority. But, Mr. Harrell plays this veneer as thinly as possible, allowing us to see his weakness and indecision. His leadership is as flimsy as any parchment granting power, which the truly powerful Philip Faulconbridge will cleave with his sword.
Benjamin Curns portrayed Richard I in Lion in Winter and Philip Faulcobridge in King John. This works well as there is no doubt about the resemblance of the disputed lineage of the bastard. The father’s face and son’s physique tell carry over of the crusading king to his son. Likewise, King Phillip in Lion in Winter and Phillip II in King John are portrayed by the same actor, Rene Thornton Jr. Just as in real generational lines of succession, the father and son resemblance in stature, gesture, and expression brought out by Mr. Thornton’s performance allows us to see the conquests and sins of the father are carried on in the next generation. The only role that was not carried over father-to-son between the plays was that of Geoffrey (Gregory Jon Phelps) and Arthur (Ronald Peet). Both perform their parts astutely, but the parallel partnering would have fully linked the plays.
King John is a play without clear conclusion. The crown passes back and forth like the ball in a rugby match. Shakespeare suggests less of a resolution and more that the game will continue on after the curtain. History eventually reined in their reigns with the Magna Carta. The rule of law, verses the edicts of kings and cardinals, began to take hold. Today our Constitution is set out as the rule of law. We follow the rules and vote in presidents, our form of king, every four years. Will Obama be given another term in office? Will Romney symbolically lop off his head? Will the Supreme Court settle the matter of some disputed state vote? Shakespeare would suggest that whatever today’s outcome is, tomorrow will begin the next campaign.