Obscure Shakespeare, Dusted Off and Glorious

The assured new production of Shakespeare’s King John , by the Theater for a New Audience at the American Place Theater, is a thrilling achievement. Let’s not mix our superlatives. Though it has a few inconsequential flaws, Karin Coonrod’s brilliant production of the little-known political drama that swims in murderous expediency is the best Shakespeare I’ve seen for many a season.

It’s all the more welcome, frankly, after the recent calamitous Hamlet at the Public Theater to see Shakespeare neither dumbed down nor tricked up. Ms. Coonrod is an experimental director who begins and ends with the text, the narrative sweep, words–and thank goodness for that. She and her immensely skillful ensemble are actually unafraid of Shakespeare! It is such a pleasure to see (and hear). They do not treat the text as sacred; they respect it. And in respecting it–and dusting it off–they’ve brought it back to life.

King John has been reclaimed from partial obscurity–no small achievement in itself. It’s rarely produced. (This is the first time I’ve seen it.) Probably written in 1590-1591, King John is chronologically the earliest of Shakespeare’s histories and it stands apart from them. It covers an earlier period–12th century England and the struggle for the crown. It’s a less mature play, and certainly a less popular one than Henry V with its stirringly romantic English patriotism, or Richard III and its Machiavellian tragedy of kingship gone mad.

King John is about ungodly misrule and patriotism, even so. All of Shakespeare’s histories concern the circularity through the ages of war and treachery in the pursuit of power. King John himself has “borrow’d majesty”–seized the crown. The plot turns on the King’s defense of his crown against the united Catholic powers of France and Austria who support the claims of his nephew, young Arthur. It’s about legitimacy. The central character, literally known as the Bastard, is the illegitimate son of Richard the Lion Heart. He’s a wry outsider and commentator, our guide to the shameless cynicism of political expediency. Yet the Bastard is the only character in the play, including righteous papal emissaries, who understands what is legitimate, and what is just.

Harold Bloom, who knows a thing or two about Shakespeare’s plays, but little about theater, rightly claims in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human that the Bastard ought to be king “because nobody else is at all kingly.” But which Bastard? The cheerful version we meet in the earlier scenes is as cynical as the sordid machinations satirized in the Bastard’s scathing “commodity” speech. Government–”Mad world! Mad kings!”–has been reduced to a state of “commodity” or corrupt pragmatism, dishonor.

Then again, the Bastard later appears to join the opportunistic game, becoming the insider propping up the now shaky throne of England with stern Realpolitik advice. “Be stirring with the time; be fire with fire/ Threaten the threatener, and outface the brow/ Of bragging horror …” And by the play’s end, the Bastard has become the noblest Englishman of them all! His sincere patriotic words, which send us on our way, were even used by Churchill during the Battle of Britain:

“This England never did, nor never shall

Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror.”

Rousing stuff, eh? Well, more than enough to make this Englishman in exile gulp a bit. But with Shakespeare’s histories, order is always restored, until the next time. The motif of King John isn’t the supremacy of goodness or truth, but of wormy self-interest and lies. And all power-hungry men are corruptible. So sacred alliances are broken without conscience, the King becomes the murderous patriot and vacillating traitor, the decent man, the conscience-stricken assassin, and the cardinal is made laughable in his smooth unchristian ways. And the world today?

The new King John production doesn’t force topicality. It has no need. Our present is always in Shakespeare’s past, if we will only let him speak. Ms. Coonrod’srood’s intelligent production has a sure touch in its urgent rhythm and pace; its theatricality is innate, not showy; the isolated images within the spare staging are well chosen and memorable. (The flying death of the boy-pretender to the throne fleeing imprisonment from the ramparts of the castle; the stage picture of two armies at war with their flags fluttering in blood.) But this is the best-spoken Shakespeare we could hear.

Hamlet says, “Let’s hear a play” (as opposed to “see one”). Ms. Coonrod gets the balance right. The watchword of the production is clarity. Every member of the cast is confident in the verse, none more so than Derek Smith as an engaging, wonderfully alive Bastard. Ned Eisenberg’s King John is a modest, first-rate portrait of a second-rate thug; the excellence of Myra Carter’s Queen Eleanor and Pamela Nyberg’s Constance–ambitious mother of young Arthur–give maternal hags a goodish name. Who wouldn’t sympathize with Ms. Nyberg’s rage and grief that fills the room of her absent child? Trusty Nicholas Kepros could make poetic sense in a fog. His Cardinal Pandolph, dry as a bleached bone, is so clearly reasonable in his venality that we take it as the natural order. But everyone in the ensemble is exceptionally fine.

Those small nagging flaws? Ah, those . The lowering of the Cardinal’s hand, compelling the King to kneel before him in order to kiss his ring, might have been resisted. Tut-tut! Who doesn’t recall the same moment in Olivier’s Richard III ? More importantly, the mimed crown-tossing that opens the play is saying to us: “The crown is for the taking; the crown is anyone’s in this game.” Is it? The image is too playfully light for me, like the circular hoop that passes for the crown. I like my crowns real. A real crown is worth fighting for. It is heavy.

I very much liked the simplicity of Douglas Stein’s set design; the underlighting of the stage by Christopher Akerlind focuses the action brilliantly; P.K. Wish’s costumes tread the giddy line between history and modernity well–with a single blatant lapse. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why the Messenger of Katie MacNichol, another fine actress in the cast, is dressed like a Yohji Yamamoto model during fashion week.

It is, on reflection, the Deliberate Mistake of the production. The Yamamoto moment is saying to us: “This is what we don’t do. This is what we used to do!” As I gladly say, Ms. Coonrod’s production of King John is of our time without seeming to try. It’s a major contribution, to be heard as well as seen.