at the Ruth Page Theatre
at Stage Left Theatre
Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By th’ mass, and ’tis: like a camel, indeed.–Hamlet, act three, scene two.
There’s been a lot of fuss about the alleged contemporary relevance of Shakespeare’s King John–especially its relevance to events currently unfolding in Czechoslovakia. Shakespeare Repertory’s Barbara Gaines has advertised the connection by dedicating her new production of the play to a venerable old Czech scholar and activist named Zdenek Urbanek; she’s asserted it theatrically by adding Prague-like images of struggle and triumph to the production’s beginning and end. Articles and reviews have appeared in the papers, duly confirming that yes, by th’ mass, ’tis like the Czechs, indeed.
But I dunno. I just don’t see it. Shakespeare Rep’s handbook for young audiences says King John “tells the story of a despotic ruler who pushes his people and his country beyond what they can endure. Once they learn to free themselves of their fears, they are able to free themselves of the tyrant.” If all that’s so, then the action of the play really does anticipate the miracle of Wenceslas Square.
Only it isn’t quite so. Not as far as I can tell. Certainly John was an accomplished–even legendary–jerk. And prig. And weasel. And yes, tyrant. Fourth son of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, baby brother of Richard the Lionhearted, he involved himself in endless intrigues, rebelling against both his father and his illustrious sibling before ascending the throne himself by stepping over–and ultimately snuffing out–a 12-year-old nephew named Arthur. John’s arbitrariness and venality actually ended up doing some good: alarmed barons forced him to sign the Magna Charta, which enjoined him to keep his paws off their stuff in the short run–and provided a way to curb royal power in the long.
Now I guess it’s possible to count John’s barons among “the people” of England, and to portray their victory as a blow for popular sovereignty a la Czechoslovakia. But it wouldn’t be terribly accurate: The barons-versus-John thing was more like a turf war between rival filthy-rich gangsters. Kingpins and robber barons, as it were. The idea that it helped the masses is pure hindsight.
And anyway, it isn’t even mentioned in Shakespeare’s play. Shakespeare’s play ignores the Magna Charta entirely and concentrates instead on John’s incredibly convoluted relations with France and the Vatican. A subject that doesn’t immediately put me in mind of the Czech revolution. Sure, poor young Arthur gets killed along the way–inspiring some vaguely Prague-oid murmurings from the common folk, some out-and-out treason among the nobles, and even a cosmic omen of divine disapproval. But nothing dramatically or politically crucial comes of this agitation. By the end of the play, the disgruntled nobles are back in line; the power structure’s untouched; and though John’s a goner, it isn’t the popular will that’s done him in but a homicidal monk, who could as easily be taking revenge on behalf of the pope as striking a blow against tyranny.
So where’s the camel in this cloud? Where’s the revolution in this play? Like I say, I dunno. In fact, if I didn’t have Gaines and the handbook for young audiences to tell me otherwise, I’d swear that King John actually opposes the sort of social anarchy Vaclav Havel helped foment. The clear hero of the piece, after all, is the one man who refuses to have any truck with treason: a bastard son of Richard the Lionhearted, Philip Faulconbridge. A hundred times the leader John is, he’s passionate, cunning, blunt, and honorable, and he knows exactly what a dangerous dweeb England has in John. And yet he remains unalterably, unconditionally, and even at times rather foolishly loyal to his king–playing Kent to a pathetic Lear, for the sake of England and his own integrity.
If you ask me, King John is less about overcoming tyranny than surviving incompetence. Spinelessness and incompetence. What with the king of England and his fellow dignitaries constantly trying to worm their way out of alliances, oaths, commitments, principles, plans, deals, crimes, lies, wars–almost anything requiring a moment’s single-mindedness–King John becomes a comedy of subterfuges. It can be an astonishingly dark comedy at times, as when John waffles over the question of slitting Arthur’s throat; it can also be slyly absurd: a scene where the citizens of a besieged town try to talk their way out of annihilation suggests the great Brechtian con men–Adzak, Puntila, and Mother Courage.
Either way, the disease of expedience is overwhelmingly present, infecting nearly everyone. Even sweet, naive Arthur is capable of embracing the man who killed his uncle Richard, as a matter of policy.
Gaines’s production seems at times to pick up on the comedy of subterfuge in King John. Lisa Dodson whips herself into a kind of political hysteria as Arthur’s mother, Constance–literally heaving herself from one potential ally to the next. Greg Vinkler plays John as an overgrown boarding-school brat, barely containing first his petulance and then his paralytic fright. Kevin Gudahl moves from breezy irreverence to sharp determination as a black-leather-jacketed Philip Faulconbridge. And Robert Scogin is the king of diplomatic oiliness as the pope’s man Cardinal Pandulph.
The dark ridiculousness implied in these performances is overwhelmed, however, by Gaines’s earnest political intentions. Robert Neuhaus’s sound design is stirring with its pounding drums, Michael Merritt’s set and Robert Shook’s lights are powerful in their prisonlike bleakness–but they’re offered in the service of a conceit that just plain doesn’t work. However much you try you can’t make this play be about Czechoslovakia, and the attempt to do so results in aesthetic and intellectual chaos.
You can learn a lot of juicy facts about Lord Byron from Romulus Linney’s Childe Byron. The guy’s life, and especially his loves, makes for solid scandal even in the age of Madonna. With his proclivities for incest, adultery, sodomy, political adventurism, lushly indulgent poetry, and simple irresponsibility he’s every bit as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” as he claims to be.
Linney’s script does a mild sort of justice to the poet and his legend. All the gossip’s examined, all the ironies are remarked. But there’s not much sense of a deep or original vision. Even the premise–whereby the long-dead Byron appears to his daughter in a fever dream, as she herself lies dying–is essentially banal.
What makes this Cloud 42 production worthy of Byron’s spirit is Marc Silvia’s funny, unabashed, and thoroughly charismatic way of inhabiting that spirit. An epic mix of vanity and generosity, egotism, playfulness, contentiousness, and appetite, Silvia fills out the legend Linney only outlines.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.