When Tina Packer, founder of Shakespeare & Co., asked the audience on Thursday night who had not seen King John before, I didn’t see a single unraised arm. Packer’s notes for the show—she directed it—say “I think King John is a rarely produced play because there is no clear answer” to the big issues it raises, which sounds like a director directing us away from her inability to make sense of the play. But Packer does make sense of it. I thought it was actually one of Shakespeare & Co’s most successful plays, and we’ve been coming to them for around 20 years.
Man, this is not a play that reads well, so I came in worried about following the action. Worse, you have to worry when the official synopsis parenthetically explains a character with the phrase “(also called Philip).” That’s a bad sign. But, it turns out that the twists and turns of allegiances are easy to follow, at least in this production. Credit Packer, the excellent acting, and the live music composed by Martin Best. The enunciation was bell-clear, as always, and the troupe uses Packer’s subtle gestural techniques to clarify who’s talking to whom about what. Plus Packer finds the humor in the piece, again as usual, starting with King John (Allyn Burrows) reading the line “Silence, mother” as a kingly shout of the first word and a second that, with a sly, conciliatory smile, acknowledges that the first went too far.
The play moves along until the intermission, but hits its emotional core in the second half. King John is undone more by fortune than by his own faults. Even his clearly evil act of ordering the death of young Arthur only drives him to ruin because the boy accidentally falls to his death, after Hubert has defied his king’s orders. Entire kingdoms hang on such events, in this play. It is a convincing and ultimately terrifying worldview.
In a disturbing final scene, we are left with King John dying in agony, poisoned by monks, as the crown passes to his young son who looks terrified at the prospect of being thrown into fortune’s maw.
The acting was overall terrific, but I particularly enjoyed Peter Macon as the bastard (the only character who has shown an inner constancy), Allyn Burrows as the king, Annette Miller as Eleanor, Robert Biggs as Austria, Kenajuan Bentley as Hubert, and Barbara Sims as Constance. The play runs July 21-September 3. If you’re in the Berkshires, see it. When else are you going to have a chance?
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