John (Tom McCamus), the youngest of Henry ll's five sons, would not traditionally have been the child expected to inherit the throne. Nevertheless, John did become King at the age of thirty-two on the death of his eldest brother, Richard the Lionheart in 1199. Even though John's young nephew, Arthur (Noah Jalava), the son of yet another older and also deceased brother of John's, had an arguably better claim, John became King. On his death bed Richard was reported to have announced John as his heir. John acted promptly, seizing the royal treasury. His coronation quickly followed, in spite of the strenuous objections of Constance (Seana McKenna), mother of the young Arthur, who she fervently believed deserved to wear his uncle's crown.
The Stratford Festival production of King John has been staged in the intimate Tom Patterson Theatre by Tim Carroll, a well-known Brit who has recently directed award-winning Shakespeare productions on Broadway (Twelfth Night and Richard III starring Mark Rylance), as well as two other plays at the Stratford Festival (a poorly received production of Romeo & Juliet and a somewhat more successful Peter Pan).
Carroll specializes in a particular approach to Shakespeare, which he refers to as, "the game of original practices"... or an attempt to reproduce Shakespeare's plays today in a similar way they might have been presented in Elizabethan times. King John is only a modified version of this directing style. Modified because in Shakespeare's day women's parts were played by boys. But in this production the female parts are performed by actresses.
King John is one of the least well known of the histories and definitely one of the least often produced of Shakespeare's plays. It's also a very talky play with a relatively slow second act, which may in part explain its lack of popularity.
To Carroll and the company's credit, they do deliver a vibrant first act which includes verbal fireworks betwixt the two featured, very aggressive females in this play. They are the determined mothers of the two contenders for the crown, King Paul and his young nephew Arthur.
As the play opens, there are two distinct teams on the stage, an impetuous, arrogant, bullying, highly ambitious, at times childish and lacking moral fiber King John, his imperious Mom, Queen Eleanor and their entourage, facing off against a furious and bitter Constance and her youngish son Arthur who are being backed by the French King, Philip (Peter Hutt).
Adding to the turmoil and plethora of competing characters (you can't tell your players without a program), there's yet another Philip, known as the Bastard (Graham Abbey), who's the illegitimate son of the former king, Richard, and who has decided to join his uncle John's team.
Some of Philip the Bastard's speeches are the most interesting and entertaining parts of this play and production. Particularly since Graham Abbey has done a spectacular job of portraying Philip's highly energized, cocky, aware, opportunistic and sardonic character. When you add the fact that Abbey speaks Shakespeare like it's his native tongue, delivering lines so clearly and at times so humorously, you'd think they were contemporary speech, then you've got a definite audience pleaser, an absolute winning performance.
"Mad world! Mad kings! Mad composition!" Says Philip the Bastard, "Whiles I am a beggar, I will rail and say there is no sin but to be rich, And being rich, my virtue then shall be; to say there is no vice but beggary."
In another attempt at original practices, lighting designer Kevin Fraser, chose to light the stage during the funnier, more frivolous first act with candelabras plus theatre lights designed to simulate the natural light that might have streamed in through the Globe theatre's windows.
After intermission, candles become the sole source of light and the play takes on a far darker, dramatic and talkier tone as the religious folk and lords debate which side to support. Armies continue to war, and a tortured soul known as Hubert (Wayne Best) struggles with the task he's been assigned by the King to dispose of young Arthur. This scene is actually one of the more poignant moments in the second act since it's difficult not to feel for both the unwilling assassin and the child, who quietly and politely begs Hubert for mercy.
Like most of Shakespeare's History plays, King John has got it's fair share of blood and guts. Plus, in this case, Shakespeare allowed this King to express his massive distaste for the papacy, which ultimately led to John's excommunication.
But, the most intriguing thing about this play is its relevance to present day global politics. The more things change, the more things stay the same. It's a cynical play about political chicanery, intrigue, cliques, profiteering, lying, cruelty, self-interest, etc. No different than the state of politics in many parts of the world today. "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose".
The strong cast, as usual, are more than capable regarding the language and the acting and the production and design teams have also perfectly fulfilled the director's vision.
Not necessarily the best production at Stratford this summer, but definitely worth seeing.
Written by: William Shakespeare
Directed by: Tim Carroll
Starring: Tom McCamus, Seana McKenna, Graham Abbey
Company The Stratford Festival
Costume and set design by: Carolyn M Smith
Lighting design by: Kevin Fraser
Composer: Claudio Vena
Sound design by: Todd Charlton
Approximate running time:
2 hrs 51 min, including one interval
Most likely to be of interest to ages 12 and up, this production uses candlelight effects that include live flame.
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