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Monday, 9 June 2014

Review: King John (or, Why, the critic asks, is this play not produced more often?)

King John, by William Shakespeare
Directed by Tim Carroll
Designed by Carolyn M. Smith
Tom McCamus as King John.
Photo: David Hou
The story: The crown of England is in dispute. John is brother and heir to the previous King, Richard the Lionheart, and has their indomitable mother Eleanor's backing. But John's nephew Arthur is the rightful heir to the crown in the eyes of the church, being the son of John's older but deceased brother, Geoffrey. While Arthur's mother Constance finds a champion for her son in Philip of France, John vows to battle the usurping nation. A brief truce crumbles when the Pope's representative excommunicates John and threatens France with the same, and a series of bad decisions leaves John's followers doubtful of his ability to lead. When the dust is settled England does indeed have a true ruler, but it is one for whom neither John nor Constance would have wished.

As with most history plays, Shakespeare collapsed events and ignored some facts for the art of storytelling. The storytelling of King John - one of England's most notoriously bad rulers - is not the stuff of King Lear or Julius Caesar, by any stretch, it is merely a recitation of a number of events that marked John's kingly career. Most of the characters are therefore a little two-dimensional, and it is history, so there is a lot of talky explanation.

This is not a bad thing, but it does explain why the second half of this play is notoriously slow compared to the first half, where we get to meet a fellow like Philip the Bastard. But looked at as an examination of a particularly inept leader, and in particular the politics surrounding him, this play is quite fascinating, in any age. Inept leaders, bad decisions, political battles... heck, it is all playing out in Ontario on June 11 as much as it did in the middle ages. (So, why is this play not produced more often, and in modern settings?)

Tim Carroll, responsible for last year's attempt at an Original Practices Romeo and Juliet on the Festival Stage, has shifted locales to the Tom Patterson stage - a much more intimate setting - and goes about recreating another historical atmosphere, that of a Blackfriar's theatre. Bare stage, medieval music, Elizabethan costumes and about ten two-tiered candelabras set the mood - the creative team of Carolyn M Smith (costume and set design), Kevin Fraser (lighting), Claudio Vena (composer) and Todd Charlton (sound design) knew that they were doing. The very first appearance by the full cast is spine-chilling thanks to them - singing in multiple harmony, in Latin, something that sounded far more fierce than holy, moving with sombre, Elizabethan courtly steps - it transports one instantly.
Wayne Best as Hubert; Tom McCamus as King John.
Photo: David Hou
And despite not-so-generous reviews for his last Stratford production, Mr. Carroll seems to have hit a stride with the cast he assembled for King John. In the title role Tom McCamus is a study of an unstable personality, all bravura in the first half of the play and desperately nervy the next. It is intriguing to imagine what his King John would be like set in a modern-day boardroom or cabinet-meeting (probably quite recognizable).

John's nemesis Constance is played by Seana McKenna. Whereas her other major role this summer - Mother Courage - is quite unmaternal and emotionally suppressed, in Constance Ms. McKenna unleashes the power of Mother with a capital M. To see both productions back to back is to be awed by her ability.

In the role of Philip the Bastard - a heroic character created by Shakespeare for his audiences - Graham Abbey has mined far more humour from the role than seems present at first (or second or third) reading. He is aided in this by Sean Arbuckle's cowardly-lionesque Duke of Austria, who keeps one eye peeled for the Bastard at all times in a twitchy sort of way.

There is solid work from Antoine Yared as the Dauphin, finally allowed to break from the foppish and simple characters he has heretofore inhabited, and Stephen Russell and Brad Rudy as the Earls Salisbury and Pembroke, respectively. These two veterans never fail to deliver the weighty goods, and Mr. Russel in particular creates great empathy for a character whose role is fairly fleeting. Wayne Best (Hubert), Jennifer Mogbock (Blanche) and Patricia Collins (Queen Eleanor) also exhibit some fine talent.
Despite King John only being staged four times previously at the Stratford Festival, this play demands a bigger and more appreciative audience.  Plan on seeing it before it closes on September 20th at the Tom Patterson Theatre, where it is playing in repertory.

Graham Abbey as Philip the Bastard.
Photo: David Hou

PS: Planning on bringing some younger budding fans of the Bard? Here's a bit of introductory fun - just keep in mind Shakespeare rearranged events (and facts) for the stage. Horrible Histories: King John

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