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King John: Cheeky lead performance enlivens Shakespeare’s justly obscure play

Tom McCamus as King John and Brian Tree as Cardinal Pandulph in the Stratford Festival’s King John.

David Hou/Stratford Festival

2.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
William Shakespeare
Directed by
Tim Carroll
Tom McCamus, Seana McKenna, Graham Abbey
The Stratford Festival
Tom Patterson Theatre
Stratford, Ont.
Runs Until
Saturday, September 20, 2014

Tim Carroll is back at the Stratford Festival again this summer with the game he calls "original practices." Last year, the British director staged Romeo and Juliet in Stratford's Festival Theatre as if it were an outdoor performance at the Globe in Shakespeare's time. This time around, he's presenting King John as if it were at the intimate, indoors Blackfriars Theatre in Stratford's intimate, indoors Tom Patterson Theatre.

This makes more sense – though it's debatable whether King John was ever actually staged, indoors or outdoors, during Shakespeare's life. King John seems to have been as obscure a play then as it is now, though interestingly enough it became rather fashionable in the 19th century and was the first of the Bard's plays to be turned into a film that we know of. You can find a clip of the great English actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree as John, filmed in 1899, silently spasming his way to death on YouTube.

There's a bit of Beerbohm Tree's over-the-top physicality in Tom McCamus's portrayal of King John as a momma's boy masquerading as a schoolyard bully. On the battlefield, he waves at his opponents like a taunting child but, when things stop going his way, he either has a tantrum or curls up in his regal red cloak like it's his favourite blankie. It's a really cheeky performance.

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You're forgiven for being unfamiliar with King John, the person or the play. About the only important event to happen during his reign (from 1199 to 1216) was the signing of the Magna Carta; this is entirely absent from Shakespeare's chronicle, a perhaps telling omission for those who would project democratic politics onto the playwright.

King John is mainly just a very cynical play about politics, and in that it feels deliciously contemporary. It begins with England and France on the brink of war, ostensibly over King John's legitimacy. King Philip of France (Peter Hutt) is sheltering John's young nephew Arthur – whom he and Arthur's mother Constance (played by Seana McKenna as a pushy, proto-helicopter parent) believe should be sitting on the throne.

As much as John and Philip make it out that they are fighting for principles, however, they're really self-interested and after lucre and land – a fact that becomes clear when, in the course of battle, they briefly decide to team up to slaughter some insolent town that refuses to pledge allegiance to either, and then put their quarrels aside when a profitable marriage is arranged.

"Mad world! Mad kings! Mad composition!" marvels Philip the Bastard, the illegitimate son of John's predecessor on the throne, Richard the Lionhearted, and played here with charismatic swagger by Graham Abbey. He finds this unprincipled peace despicable, but he's also self-aware. "Whiles I am a beggar, I will rail and say there is no sin but to be rich," he says. "And being rich, my virtue then shall be; to say there is no vice but beggary."

The Bastard is the audience's main pal in the play, speaking directly to individual spectators and occasionally tossing one a severed head. For the first half of the evening, it's easy for Abbey, who speaks Shakespeare like it's his mother tongue, to involve us in Carroll's production: We can see each other, as the stage is lit by candelabras augmented by artificial lights meant to simulate the natural light that might have streamed in through Blackfriars's windows.

After intermission, however, everything is darker and candles are the sole source of light – though the chandeliers hanging above the stage are, alas, fake. (One of the most fun parts of watching Carroll's recent Twelfth Night on Broadway, for which he is currently nominated for a Tony Award, was watching actors dodge falling chunks of hot wax.)

The shift in lighting mimics the shift in tone and style of Shakespeare's text, and, as the audience disappears in the dark, the play closes in on itself. The broadly satiric early scenes are replaced by more dramatic ones that, as war erupts yet again, focus around the fate of the boy Arthur (Noah Jalava) and whether or not he will be killed.

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Nice idea – but, in practice, Shakespeare's play kind of dies at this point and Carroll's approach, so lively earlier, embalms it rather than bringing it back to life. There is interesting drama surrounding Constance prematurely mourning her son, and in a fellow named Hubert (Wayne Best) brooding over whether or not he should follow John's orders to kill Arthur.

But mostly there are bishops and lords arguing over which king to support in language that sounds like Shakespeare working through a first draft. "Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale / Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man," says Lewis, the French dauphin. Maybe keep working on that line, Bill, but give the guy saying it a Scottish accent instead of a French one? And have you considered adding in some witches to spice the story up?

In keeping with the Blackfriars conceit, Carolyn M. Smith's design is Elizabethan rather than Middle Ages. As Carroll notes, Shakespeare's company was not worried about mixing periods when it came to costumes and props – and so there are both rapiers and broadswords, as well as music from the 16th and the 13th centuries.

I find this very funny – that one would strive to stage a play with historically accurate anachronisms. My feeling is that a production true to the spirit of Shakespeare's time would introduce new anachronisms that might perhaps make the second half more palatable, perhaps taking a page from Beerbohm Tree's century and slicing and dicing and rewriting the text. Still, I had enough fun playing Carroll's game this time around to see this King John as half-full, rather than half-empty.

Follow me on Twitter: @nestruck

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Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More


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