Poster for A King and No King, featuring a crown.

December 16, 2020, by Peter Kirwan

A King and No King (Red Bull Theater) @ YouTube

While there have been no end of opportunities to watch Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream during lockdown, the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries have had rather shorter shrift. It’s a delight, then, that New York’s Red Bull Theater worked to bring together a stellar cast for a live reading of Beaumont and Fletcher’s incest drama A King and No King. While inevitably working within the constraints of Zoom, the cast did an excellent job of pulling out the play’s complexities, anchored by an outstanding performance by Chukwudi Iwuji as Arbaces.

Productions of A King and No King stand or fall by their Arbaces, who has a role that veers between the hilarious and the terrifying. Iwuji dominated this production whenever he was on screen (often literally taking up more space, of which more anon). Key to the force of his performance was timing; it’s unclear how much rehearsal the company had for this reading, but Iwuji’s ability to interrupt and respond well to being interrupted; the suddenness with which he picked up on reactions; and the clarity of his moments of (deliberate) silence, all gave the production a fluidity and responsiveness that can sometimes be lacking in Zoom-based theatre.

Much of the variety in the (surprising number of) A King and No Kings I’ve seen comes in the tone of Arbaces’ violent outbursts, which are often funny in their audacity. The central, brilliantly written sequence in which he falls head over heels in a public environment when Panthea presents herself to him, and then absolutely refuses to hear the unwelcome news that she is his sister, was particularly effective here in balancing the comedy of Iwuji casting hie eyes around, smiling, buoyed by his new love, and his turn on a sixpence to become moody and violently angry when he was told the truth. There was a selfishness and instability to this Arbaces that manifested in mood swings and entitlement; when the problem was resolved at the end of the play, however, the same energy was channelled into an almost careless generosity and joy. In Iwuji’s hands, the character was compelling even as he wrestled with his own (apparently) illegitimate desire, and the sheer force of personality pulled along everyone in his wake.

In some ways, Iwuji unbalanced the production, which is not unfitting for the play. The Zoom environment was arranged in a series of floating squares against a monochrome background, with the squares growing in size according to the importance of the person – so Arbaces often literally took up more space. The spatial adjustments were a bit disruptive at times – it wasn’t clear if there was a systematic scheme at work, and so the sizes and positions sometimes seemed arbitrary, and the choice to have characters fade in and out when they leave felt unsettling. When characters spoke asides to themselves/the audience, they suddenly took up the whole screen, which created a sudden sense of filmic interiority that disrupted the public nature of the scene; if characters were whispering aside to one another, on the other hand, they leant in towards the camera as if using three-dimensional space, which was clear though sometimes had the effect of looking a little comic, as if they were headbutting the camera. In movements such as this, the characters seemed to be trying to create space for themselves around and away from Arbaces, and the interface layout of the big crowd scenes, with Arbaces slightly larger than everyone else and surrounded by literally marginal figures, worked at its best to give a sense of relative status.

There was plenty of solid work among the supporting cast, particularly Cara Ricketts as an eloquent, plainly spoken Panthea who wasn’t flapped by Arbaces’ rages but tried to manage him very carefully; Craig Wallace as a dignified Gobrius who had secret plans; and Teresa Avia Lim in the breakout role of Spaconia, whose dispossession and ill-treatment drove the subplot. Lim was particularly strong in establishing herself as an arbiter of what should be, developing surprising pathos from the bottom right hand corner of the screen. For my money, these two-and-a-half-hour readings can be a little monotonous without a bit more visual variety (the identical backgrounds for all characters created a very dull palette), but this offered a promising template for readings of this kind. Perhaps the most exciting reminder was how clear and thrilling Beaumont and Fletcher’s writing is, even without the benefits of full production.

Posted in Theatre review