The Life and Death of King John
Shakespeare’s Motley Crew
at the Edgewater Theatre Center
By Jack Helbig
Popular in its own time, Richard II was first printed in 1597 and went through four editions before 1623. But in our day the play has been overshadowed by Shakespeare’s tragedies about more fiery and malevolent kings, Lear and Macbeth and Richard III, who rage and rape and murder their way through life. It’s not hard to see why these rogues rate: compared to them, poor Richard is a sap. His crime as king was that he wasn’t quite good enough, smart enough, or popular enough. Like Alexander II or Marie Antoinette’s unfortunate husband, Richard is just an ordinary guy playing at being king. He knows how to act kingly, how to dress for the part, how to lord it over others like a king, but when a true leader is needed, Richard turns out to be just a guy in nice threads and an oversize tiara. At least that’s how Michael Halberstam plays him in this Writers’ Theatre-Chicago production, and the interpretation fits.
Others have had different ideas about the role. Derek Jacobi–both in the West End production and on the BBC series–played Richard as a strong-willed dim bulb, the kind of Dilbertian executive who is always one or two beats behind, unable to grasp the most sensible advice but insisting that everyone do things his way. And in David Petrarca’s staging several years ago at the Goodman, Jeffrey Hutchinson’s Richard II was a weak, homosexual, vaguely immoral man done in by his retinue of unscrupulous advisers.
Halberstam’s Richard is not stupid or morally corrupt–or, to be more exact, he’s no more corrupt than anyone else in this feudal world ruled by warriors. Halberstam’s Richard is just the wrong man for the job. And even he seems to know it. Halberstam’s Richard sulks where other Richards have fumed, throws temper tantrums where others have raged. Even when things are going his way, Halberstam’s Richard seems oddly distant, as if he can’t really believe he has as much power as he does. And when the tide turns against him, watch out: he has a sharp look and curt remark for every occasion.
What I find most fascinating, and most moving, about this Richard II is how much he seems a man of our time. Shallow, mediocre, smaller than life, more interested in looking like a chief executive than in actually making effective decisions, this little king would fit right in on the Washington beltway. One can easily imagine him on Nightline, blustering away about the importance of maintaining troops in Ireland, rationalizing the overtaxing of rich and poor to finance the military, or trying to talk his way out of this or that jam. This familiar modern pall also characterizes Richard’s pathetic support staff (played with wonderfully villainous comic grace by Christian Gray and David Engel in multiple roles), all of whom seem much more interested in lining their own pockets than in the health of the commonweal. Shakespeare compares them to a colony of caterpillars running rampant in the garden.
Nor is Richard’s opposition much better. In fact, they’re just the same in this staging. Other productions I’ve seen have treated Henry, Richard’s successor, as a man with right and might on his side, a man better suited to kingship than Richard. His coup d’etat is treated as a legitimate if extreme way to kick out a bad king and his corrupt administration. But in this staging, Henry is very much the new boss, same as the old boss. As Sean Fortunato plays the role, Henry is only slightly brighter than Richard II and no more moral, but he’s a whole lot more willing to do the killing necessary to become a warrior-king. Once he gains the throne, he installs his own set of careerist caterpillars, same as the old catepillars, to munch away in the garden of the state. This less glamorous view of Henry is supported by Shakespeare’s text, in Bishop Carlile’s warning that Henry’s violent overthrow of Richard will lead to more disorder. In fact, Henry IV triggered the ruinous War of the Roses.
There’s so much I liked about this production. Brendan Fox’s casting is wonderful, and his direction pitch perfect. All the actors know how to make Shakespeare’s verse sing. And to watch them maneuver gracefully on the Writers’ Theatre’s tiny, tiny stage (in the back room of a bookstore) is to know the meaning of a well-choreographed play.
Halberstam’s Richard is particularly brilliant. He has a clear, strong Shakespearean voice, an obvious understanding of what he’s saying, and a gift for revealing the beauty of Shakespeare’s remarkable lines. (Richard II is full of long, poetic soliloquies.) He’s not afraid to play with the fact that he’s short (two seasons ago, Halberstam played Napoleon), his stature accentuating how childish Richard can be.
But Halberstam’s true greatness, like Richard’s, does not come until the end, when Richard is locked away in Pomfret Castle musing on his reign and life. Halberstam speaks these lines like a man born to play the part, revealing in every gesture and modulated line just how much Richard has grown in prison–how much more fit he is to be king–and how tragic it is that his last-minute wisdom will do him and England no good.
King John is another unworthy king at the center of a Shakespeare play, but he’s best known, if at all, as the less popular brother of the beloved Richard the Lion-Hearted. It was against King John that Robin Hood and his guerilla band fought from their hideaway in Sherwood Forest.
Robin Hood doesn’t appear in Shakespeare’s play, which is a pity, because Shakespeare relies on a knowledge of historical events–military maneuvers, diplomatic missions, and marriages meant to solidify empires–that most modern audiences just don’t have. It’s hard to care, for instance, that the Duke of Austria has had his head cut off in battle when you don’t know what he’s doing in the story in the first place. Several seasons ago Shakespeare Repertory threw a lot of time, money, and talent at this play, and it was still hard to care about John and his cohorts.
Not that Shakespeare’s Motley Crew do much to make the story clear. If anything, this wildly uneven production actually makes the play seem worse than it is. A handful of actors here seem to understand what they’re saying–notably David Nava as the King of France and Tim Askew as the Dauphin–while the rest stand around the stage, speaking their lines with no conviction whatsoever. They might as well be reciting random list of Shakespeare’s favorite 10,000 words.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Richard II photo by Alexander Guezenstvey.