April 7, 2012, by Peter Kirwan

A King and No King (Willing Suspension) @ Boston University Student Theatre

The annual Shakespeare Association of America conference is in Boston this year, a city I’ve never been to but which is thoroughly stunning, and a great backdrop to some very stimulating papers. Being in Boston also gave me the opportunity to see in person the Boston University students of Willing Suspension, a young theatre company devoted to the performance of non-Shakespearean drama. Several of their past productions are available on Youtube, which allowed me to make their Bartholomew Fair available to my students this year. Their current production is Beaumont and Fletcher’s A King and No King, one of the finest of the King’s Men’s Jacobean tragicomedies and almost never performed, and so provided a welcome break from conferencing.

Stripped down and cut back, Emily Gruber and Matthew Stokes’s production treated the tragicomedy as out-and-out comedy, bordering at times on camp – and to fine effect. The bare studio stage eschewed a sense of fixed place in favour of playing out continually to the audience, presenting a series of broadly drawn and self-consciously performative characters. While this approach muted any sense of genuine threat, it offered an amusing indictment of indulgent behaviour that held up characters for ridicule. This was, perhaps, clearest in the two central performances: Steve Marois as Arbaces and Vincent Lai as Bessus. A King and No King recycles several characters and situations from the King’s Men’s repertory, and in Marois and Loi’s performances it was possible to see what would happen if Leontes and Parolles were written into the same play. Performed with constant appeal to the audience and a deliberate awareness of the sudden mood/tonal shifts that characterise both men, the play worked as parody of splenetic and humour-driven behaviours.

Arbaces was rivetting as a character. Entirely self-indulgent, vain (at one point checking his reflection in a knife) and reckless, his kingship was unstable from the start. Veering from over-friendly camaraderie to surprising violence in the blink of an eye, everyone else on stage was rendered silent and immobile in a bid to avoid antagonising him further. While this was amusing (particularly as his men attempted to shuffle sideways offstage without him noticing), the accusations of tyranny were also entirely apt. His patronising treatment of the captured Tigranes (Chris Fisher) was particularly offensive, he even patting his rival on the head at one point. Yet more than all this was the pleasure he took in his own authority, to the grief of those around him. In the play’s more moving moments, Kelley Annesley’s excellent Mardonia – initially a joker – became a voice of reason and passionate appeal against his excesses, finally bursting into frustrated complaints when dismissed as no longer necessary to Arbaces’ plans.

Lai’s Bessus, in the comic subplot, stressed the same aspects in his character, making a strong case for the thematic and stylistic unity of the play. Similarly reactionary in his moods and actions, Lai offered an entertainingly physical performance that saw him act out his retreats and attacks, with the occasional self-deprecating admission of his own cowardice to the audience. His interview with one messenger, in which he admitted that he had received over two hundred challenges, was extremely well played, building up to a cry of hysteria and a small shower of paper challenges as he realised that his supposed valour had finally made him a target for honour duels. The more serious implications of the character came out, however, as he replaced Mardonia in Arbaces’ affections. On initially hearing of Arbaces’ intentions to woo his own sister, Bessus paused, seeming as if he was going to make the same moral objections, before then offering a crude thrusting motion, slapping Arbaces on the back and agreeing to do the deed. The subsequent argument between the two brought out seemed to be the play’s core central problem, that of the flexibility of morality in the pursuit of immediate satisfaction, and the amorality of Bessus contrasted neatly with Arbaces’ soul-searching.

The choice to re-gender several of the characters, presumably occasioned by a surpus of female actors, was interesting – rather than simply have female actors play the roles as male, several of the soldiers became female. This was somewhat problematic in terms of the honour/duelling system, and moreover had the frustratingly simplistic effect of creating a sustained division between men as fools (Arbaces, Bessus, the Gentleman of the Sword) and women as voices of wisdom and reason (Mardonia, Bacuria). As a commentary on masculinist posturing, however, it offered an interesting visual distinction, and allowed for some simple comedy of the sexes in the subplot. While Mardonia’s sex made little difference, playing Bacuria as a woman offered some interesting textual moments, such as her order for Bessus to "unbuckle", read by him as having sexual implication and further justifying his subsequent kicking. It allowed, too, for a slightly disquieting moment as Bessus and the two Gentlemen arrived to intimidate Bacuria, the two mocking servants suddenly switching their scorn to the woman in an attempt to subdue; an attempt comically subverted with a gleeful beating sequence as Bacuria single-handedly reduced the men to screaming messes on the floor, assisted with glee by Claudia Morera as their boy, who smiled wickedly at the audience as he wielded an enormous stick to take revenge on his unthinking masters.

More interesting in terms of the gender switches was Kelsey Simonson as Ligonia, the mother (here) of the runaway Spaconia (Fabiana Cabral). While, again, the choice of an elegantly dressed woman as the ambassador between the two kingdoms fitted oddly against the 19th century military aesthetic, it allowed for a shift in the tone of her interactions with her daughter. The quickness with which she branded her daughter "whore" and refused to listen seemed to come from a place of personal shame, and Spaconia’s response evoked the teenage daughter reacting against a mother who she is attempting to distance herself from (I was reminded of The Sopranos). The sight of Tigranes attempting to pacify his new mother-in-law while supporting his wife was interesting also in this context, particularly given the quietness of Fisher’s performance. Tigranes was a minor presence in this particular production, almost inaudible from my seat, which was a little disappointing, but at least served to effectively contrast his self-discipline with Arbaces’ loud and reckless behaviour.

In the supporting roles, Allistair Johnson and Caitlin O’Halloran offered gravitas as Gobrius and Lady Gobrius, and Mary Parker was a severe and rock-solid presence as Arane. Arana remained the most difficult character to reconcile within the play, the murderous mother whose villainy turns out to have a root cause and who somehow remains on friendly terms with Gobrius; but Parker wisely chose to play her aloof and untouched, never giving away emotion. Jon Deschere and Matt Stokes were hysterical as the two Gentlemen of the Sword, the brothers who veered from mocking Bessus to squaring up to each other to hobbling off together after their beating by Bacuria. Cabral did good work as Spaconia, too, her gentleness and commitment bringing life to the quiet subplot of Tigranes and contrasting with Marta Armengol-Royo’s more mannered and extreme Panthea.

The main plot – the incestuous love between Arbaces and Panthea – was less successful, perhaps because the highly comic tone of the rest of the play left little space for a serious treatment, and lines played with apparently serious intent were greeted with audience laughter. Armengol-Royo’s princess was a very modern girl, in love with her own melodramatic responses (particularly in her amusing early interaction with Bessus, where she screamed for news much as Juliet pesters the Nurse) and constantly toying with her hands and handkerchiefs. With both Arbaces and Panthea ramping up the sentiment to the point of parody (hands on heads, wide eyes, sudden rushed kisses), it was difficult to take their plight seriously. What did come across clearly was an appeal to decorum, with Panthea shocked at the suggestion of sin as she clung breathlessly to her own purity.

The lack of serious stakes, combined with a clipped and rather sudden ending, left the final revelation scene more of a cursory wrapping up than a moment of magic, despite the attempts to create wonder by having Arbaces kneel and listen in awe. What came across more strongly – and fittingly, for this production – was the chance for a final whirl of extreme comic activity by Arbaces. Running up and down the dais to the high throne (criminally underused, but effective here) and practically skipping with joy, he took final delight in slowly revealing the cause of his own excitement, playfully reintroducing himself to the stunned Panthea and embracing all heartily. While this left the play feeling rather light, it perhaps hinted towards a sense that this is a play in which nothing really changes. Arbaces remained as inconstant and emotionally led as ever, and once more the supporting cast were reduced to still and silent watchers on, albeit this time with smiles rather than with fear. A fine and very funny revival of an excellent play.

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