Thursday, 29 May 2014

King John: Where burlesque and drama go hand-in-hand

King John
Stratford Festival
Tom Patterson Theatre
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Tim Carroll
Approximate running time: 2 hours and 56 minutes (with one 15 minute interval)
May 28-September 20
Toll-free: 1.800.567.1600

Review by Geoff Dale 
STRATFORDKing John may be one of Shakespeare’s lesser produced works in recent memory but that hasn’t stopped the Festival from staging it several times over the years – at last count four.
Now it’s Tony-nominated director Tim Carroll’s turn to try his luck with the troubling play and, while there are noticeable shortfalls, the overall sense is that it is an imaginative candle-lit effort highlighted by a number of thought-provoking characterizations, not the least of which is Tom McCamus’ startling interpretation of regal off-handedness mixed with grandiose fits of rage and madness.
As with all the Bard’s historic efforts there are generous portions of pure fantasy, much needed for a period of British history that appears to be rather confusing and often badly misunderstood by historians of considerable reputation.
One of the most welcome fictional additions is the character of Philip Faulconbridge, otherwise known throughout as the Bastard, reportedly an illegitimate son of Richard the Lionhearted.
Appointed in the early going by John as an officer in his army, the Bastard affords the immensely versatile Graham Abbey much opportunity to play about with the role in an almost burlesque fashion, bellowing, threatening and assaulting his foes both with cutting verbiage and swordplay.
One highlight is the glorious moment Philip matter-of-factly tosses the decapitated bloody heady of a foe into the lap of an unsuspecting but most likely delighted audience member. Howls of approval immediately arise from the crowd.
Now enjoying his second year in the Festival Company Noah Jalava gives a strong and at times commanding and self-assured performance as Arthur, the King’s nephew and apparent heir to the throne. With youthful enthusiasm and an obvious understanding of his role, he clearly provides one of the much-anticipated tragic elements of any Shakespearean production.
As is always the case, the playwright takes great liberties with historic fact, conveniently replacing some to suit his purpose – whether that be to create a foil for the leading character or simply to enliven the action when it lags. To the latter point, that does occur sporadically in both the opening and closing acts.
The simple reality is that fiction more often than not captures greater attention and Carroll does a fine job of accentuating these tastier little bits of John’s life. For example, while it is widely known that John was not actually poisoned by a monk at Swinstead, it’s fair to say this is far more theatrically pleasing than the fact that he actually died of dysentery while on a campaign.
While there is considerably less grandeur than the great works like King Lear and Hamlet, there is still an abundance of wonderful characters with which to play, oft times with wild literary abandon and unchecked poetic license.
Sean McKenna has a veritable field day with Constance, Arthur’s mother – a complex passionate figure of maternal majesty, fiery frenzy and ultimately lonely despair. Her speeches often ring more powerfully than her male counterparts:
“Thou shalt be punish’d for thus frighting me:
For I am sick, and capable of fears;
Oppressed with wrongs, and therefore full of fears.
A widow, husbandless, subject to fears;
A woman, naturally born to fears;
And though thou now confess thou didst but jest
With my vexed spirits, I cannot take a truce,
But they will quake and tremble all this day.”
The always reliable Brian Tree is wonderful as the trouble making papal legate, Cardinal Pandulph, the man who excommunicates John but ultimately accepts the regal repentance. Wayne Best delivers John’s chamberlain Hubert as a troubled man beset with personal conflicts while Patricia Collins shows Eleanor of Aquitaine as a strong-willed woman of self-determination.
In the end Carroll, forgoing elaborate set designs and massive stage-cluttering battle scenes, leaves the fate of the production in McCamus’ hands as the oft times hilarious monarch who casts aside foes with the gentle flick of a TTFN wave, interspersed with uncontrolled bursts of sudden raucous, shrieking threats and gestures.
Often blatantly comic, McCamus brings John to life as a man with considerable human frailties, a monarch that one can easily see as having legions of both friends and foes alike. Clearly less majestic that some of Shakespeare’s kings; the character is nonetheless filled with the possibilities for explorations – both real and imagined.
What will always remain a mystery is why Shakespeare never refers, even casually, to John’s signing of the Magna Carta in June 2015. A small quibble perhaps but it is still one of several questions left unanswered by this curious but fascinating lesser-known production.
Powerful at times but likewise slowly moving, King John’s chief strength lies in its characterizations.
3 ½ stars
Photos: 1. Tom McCamus (centre, left) as King John and Brian Tree as Cardinal Pandulph with members of the company in King John; 2. Seana McKenna as Constance in King John. Photos by David Hou This review also appeared online at Donald's Dish.

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