King John? Check. One more history play off the list.
About a year ago a friend of mine, Melanie, decided that she wants to see all of Shakespeare’s plays performed before she turns forty. She knows I can keep up when it comes to theatre (she and I did theatre together while we were in law school together in New York and have been regular theatre friends since both moving to DC five years ago — we go to everything from the crazy weirdness of the DC Fringe Festival to oh-so-established Shakespeare Theatre Company, where we’ve had seasons tickets since 2010), so when she informed me of this goal, the implicit assumption was that it would now be my goal as well.
Because of course it would be my goal.
If I can’t sing in a choir or complete an interior design class or learn to play the piano or run marathons, I might as well see the entire Shakespeare cannon before I’m forty, right? I’ve got to have something to show for myself.
Not that it’s going to be easy! According to the Internet (which someday I may verify by looking in any of the multiple the “complete works” tomes that have been sitting on my bookshelf since college), Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, including 14 comedies, 11 histories, and 12 tragedies. Fortunately, I’m not starting from scratch. I’ve been seeing plays for many years — and since I’ve been writing down every play, opera and concert that I’ve attended (as well as every book I’ve read) for the past ten years, I’ve got a more reliable record than just my memory.
As of this morning, I had definitely seen 17 of the plays. A couple I’d forgotten even existed (Pericles, anyone?). And a few — such as Hamlet, King Lear and Othello — fall into that grey area where I’ve studied them and/or read them and/or seen the movie and/or opera and/or ballet and/or wordless performance art version so many times that I honestly can’t say whether I’ve ever seen the actual play or not. (I’m putting Antony and Cleopatra in its own category for now. I know I’ve never seen the play, but having studied it with Mark Matheson in college, I have more vivid memories of that play than any other Shakespeare play I’ve ever seen. His lectures on Cleopatra, particularly her initial entrance and her death, still give me chills.)
Anyhoo, of the 17 that I’d definitely seen, only one fell into the “histories” category. Which meant that when Melanie learned of WSC Avant Bard‘s production of King John that was about to close, we hastened to buy tickets — even though it meant skipping most of church this afternoon. King John is one of those plays that hardly ever gets performed.
Not hard to see why. The historical context and network of relationships between characters is so complicated and far removed from any common frame of reference that the audience needs to be primed with several pages of background reading just to figure it out! (Although, frankly, if someone would have just said that King John is the usurping lion who’s friends with the snake in Disney’s Robin Hood movie, it would have been a lot easier.)
|I’d always wondered where the Plantagenets came from!|
|Eleanor of Acquitaine!
I bet you never expected that your lady parts would be displayed in
the form of a place setting in a feminist art installation in Brooklyn.
I’m not going to get into the details of the plot — other than to say that it’s basically just an extended family feud between the ruling families of Europe over who gets to be king of England — so if you want the whole synopsis, you can read it here. It actually ended up being pretty interesting, and for a community theatre company that I’d never heard of before, the production wasn’t bad (in fact, they had some clever staging concepts that helped make the play more accessible, I think — such as by setting it up as the imagination of a little boy who is playing with a castle and action figures in his basement).
So there we have it. I’ve learned something about the history of the English monarchy, and I’ve crossed one more play off my list. Wahoo!
(Btw, if any of you want to join in on the project of seeing the Shakespeare’s cannon between now and 2020, let me know. I have a feeling I may have to travel to Shakespeare Festivals and the like to see some of the more obscure ones, and it would be fun to have company!)