Review: (Stratford / Theatre) King John
(photo by Don Dixon)
At Hand is War-Like John
The rarely performed King John is poised to become the triumphant dark horse of the season
by Stuart Munro and Dave Ross
Though King John enjoyed wild popularity in the 19th century, it has been rarely performed in the 20th and 21st – the Stratford Festival, for its part, has produced the play four times in the 60 years of the festival. The announcement of this new production, number five, was met with confusion by some – why on earth would the festival want to stage this dusty old piece many of us had never heard of? Our questions were answered with one of the most graceful productions ever to land itself on the Tom Patterson stage.
Stuart Munro: I’ll admit I was a bit scared coming into this. The plot synopses I’d read beforehand to familiarize myself with the play were long-winded and convoluted, and I feared I’d be dealing with the same problem I had during Monday’s opening of King Lear – a beautiful production of a play I could barely keep up with. I shouldn’t have worried. I should have remembered my reaction to director Tim Carroll’s treatment of last year’s Romeo and Juliet and breathed easy. With what I have come to believe is Carroll’s trademark approach, the text of this King John is delivered with a simplicity and clarity that propels it to the forefront, making it no more difficult to follow than contemporary, every-day speech. With a deftness of hand and an eye for precision, the action of the production moves fluidly over the stage with enough energy to keep me on the edge of my seat, but carefully enough to take the time to breathe it needs. The result is a production in which the text is the star, and an ensemble of actors who are there to serve the text.
And they serve it brilliantly. I could list every single actor here, but will restrain myself to a handful. As Blanche of Spain, Jennifer Mogbock does a remarkable amount with relatively little, and her speech towards the end of the first half brilliantly set the tone for the second. Seanna McKenna as Constance is, as always, an utter delight, and her sparring with Patricia Collins’s Eleanor of Aquitaine was a joy to watch. Tom McCamus walks a wonderfully fine line as King John. Throughout, he keeps the audience guessing as to whether or not his John is a master politician, or a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It is a marvel to say that both are absolutely possible. It is, however, Graham Abbey’s Phillip who shines most often in this production. Despite the play’s title, it is really only Phillip who addresses the audience, and whom the audience gets to know. His portrayal of the bastard son is rich and nuanced, comical and intense. His mastery of the text knows no bounds, and it is a gift to watch him work.
Dave Ross: I, too, was a bit worried that this would be a repeat of last year’s Measure for Measure – a brilliantly acted, beautifully staged production of a convoluted and incomprehensible story. Instead, I was surprised to find myself relaxing into this play. Carroll has somehow managed to work a healthy amount of humour into the script, with skillful comic timing on the part of a number of the performers making this possible. This being my second “original practices” production, I have to say that I am enamoured with the concept. The staging is so smooth and precise, proving that theatre doesn’t need a full blackout or LED follow spots to make magic happen. One good example of this is the death of Arthur, which is handled in such a poignant and powerful way, and all without a change in lighting or anything more complicated than knowing how to redirect the audience’s eye. Carolyn M. Smith’s design is utterly appropriate for Carroll’s staging, and the use of (mostly) simulated candlelight adds a warmth and almost comfort to the production. Kevin Fraser’s lighting darkens over the house oh-so-subtly as the play progresses, paralleling a shift into evening, or possibly matching the dark turn the play takes in the second half. In this performance, the technical side of theatre is so subtle as to be completely non-existent, allowing the text and performance to shine in incredible ways. Also a pleasure to note was the level of audience inclusion that took place, most notably with Graham Abbey, who as Stuart noted, is the only one to address the audience directly.
SM: I didn’t expect to love this play in the way I did, and admittedly the play itself is a tad clunky in places; the script almost feels a bit like a play-by-play of events, and John seems a bit secondary in a lot of the action. It’s not hard to see why this play has fallen out of favour – in the wrong hands it could be disastrous and pedantic. In the right hands, however, it’s a compelling look into the decline of a reign and its king. Yet the power of this production cannot be denied, with laughs from the lighter, comical first half being transformed into tears by the time the simple, elegant, and graceful finale finishes. King John, by all rights, should fall under people’s radar. But this production will, I hope, go a long way to restoring its place in the canon of Shakespeare’s more compelling works.
May 21 - Sept. 20
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