In the Richmond Shakespeare Society’s production of King John, Maxina Cornwell as Constance pleads with Death:
Arise forth from the couch of lasting night,
Thou hate and terror to prosperity,
And I will kiss thy detestable bones,
And put my eyeballs in thy vaulty brows.
Her delivery is mesmerizing, playing a fine edge between barely controlled grief and near-sexual bliss in her desire to meet Death. The language itself, too, is gripping. It has all the signs and marks of Shakespeare (“put my eyeballs in thy vaulty brows”—what an image), but none of its theatrical familiarity. (This is the first review of King John on PlayShakespeare.) As director Claudette Williamson points out, King John is one of Shakespeare’s most elusive plays: “It is not that well known by even people who go to the theatre a lot.” In King John, the Richmond Shakespeare Society—an amateur dramatic society founded in 1934—presents a solid interpretation of Shakespeare’s under-performed play.
To state for the record, this is not a professional production. The actors are society members and perform for the benefit of themselves and other society members in attendance. There are some rough edges. The stage blocking frequently leaves actors in awkward positions, especially when the French and English armies appear on stage together (the cast is large in number). Actors deal with the verse well (Richard Rudd’s Chatillon makes beautiful opening delivery) but some appear physically uncomfortable, unsure of what to do with hands and arms. Despite these issues, the production maintains momentum, offers a clear account of the story, and contains some fascinating performances—Cornwell’s Constance being one of them. She is aided by a twistedly arch turn from Frances Billington as Queen Eleanor. In a play structure that feels more like a strung-together series of events, akin to the episodic nature of Henry VIII, for example, it is the female roles that provide the most sparkling moments of drama. Machiavellian Queen Eleanor manipulates her blood relations, setting her son King John (Simon Mitelman, offering a solid account of the King) against her daughter-in-law Constance (Cornwell) and grandson Arthur (Harry Jarvis). The Eleanor-Constance verbal sniping crackles on stage and creates dramatic tension. Another point of dramatic weight involves the strong performance from Mike Archer as Faulconbridge, aka “The Bastard.” Archer presents him as one of Shakespeare’s more sympathetic bastard characters, a bit knocked about by the forces whirling around him. He is also the wry voice of conscience/commentary in the play, skewering the “mad world” and “mad kings” with a speech on “commodity.”
Stephen King’s set is a minimalist affair. The rear stage wall holds a large, white circle just differentiated from the cream and tan tones of the sides and floor. The orb reminds us of so much that is circular in the text. References to the sun make frequent appearances, as do mentions of the crown. A stepped box serves as King John’s throne, as well as the height from which young, ill-fated Arthur falls to his death. A smaller box onstage becomes the furnace holding the hot pokers intended for Arthur’s eyes.
Many buzz nowadays about making Shakespeare “accessible” by which they mean making Shakespeare accessible for an audience. But what is apparent in watching the Richmond Shakespeare Society’s King John, with its large cast of committed members, is that the Society has made Shakespeare accessible to a community. And by having such a long-established tradition of Shakespearean performance, they are not afraid to tackle his more obscure plays. Happily, they do so with strength and grace.