by Lynn on June 2, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

King John

At the Tom Patterson Theatre of the Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Tim Carroll
Designed by Carolyn M. Smith
Lighting by Kevin Fraser
Composed by Claudio Vena
Sound by Tod Charlton
Graham Abbey
Patricia Collins
Tom McCamus
Seana McKenna
Jennifer Mogbook
Brian Tree

King John is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays. Once again, men behave badly, war results and lots of grief. Good acting in a rather unremarkable production except for the suggestion it’s all lit by candle light.

The Story. King John of England is asked by the French ambassador representing King Phillip II of France to relinquish the crown in favour of his young nephew Arthur. Arthur is the son of King John’s deceased brother Geoffrey and his wife Constance. The request challenges the legacy of John’s rule. The notion of giving up the crown is ridiculous to King John and to indicate that he declares war on France.

In a subplot King John has to make a decision about a thorny issue. Two brothers vie for the inheritance of their father’s estate. Robert Falconbridge believes he is his father’s rightful heir. Robert believes his brother Philip is in fact the bastard son of King John’s predecessor, King Richard, the Lionheart, and their mother is being mum (sorry) about it.

King John offers Philip a knighthood if he will give up his claim to the family estate and follow him (King John) into battle with France. Hmmmm, live as a gentleman taking care of the large estate or fight gloriously in battle with the King of England? It’s an offer too good for Philip to refuse. Philip turns out to be a valiant and fierce warrior and a kind of chronicler of the political and social goings on. There are a lot of twists and turns in the plot, lots of political maneuvering that are so nuanced it’s dazzling with King John being adept at it all, but war is at the heart of this.

The Production. While King John is one of Shakespeare’s less known plays, it has been done before at Stratford and rather better than director Tim Carroll’s staid production. Carroll who has done a lot of work at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre during the tenure of Mark Rylance several years ago.

Carroll uses something called “Original Practices.” By doing rigorous research into the performing practices in Shakespeare’s day, Carroll creates a production that might be how it was done back then. He says in his program note that he “hopes it creates a liberating environment for the play of Shakespeare’s incredible language.”

Last year he directed Romeo and Juliet at Stratford as if it was done outside at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London so the houselights in the theatre were on, suggesting sunlight.

This time with King John he’s imagining how the play would be done indoors, which means the production is lit by candle light. Sort of. As we file in we see characters light all the candles in two large candelabra’s on either side of the Tom Patterson Theatre. Above the stage are several suspended candelabras with flickering lit candles. Only on closer observation those candles above us are either electric or some other modern invention. And a bit off to one side of the ‘candles’ are subtle electric lights in the lighting grid of the theatre. A bit of disingenuousness there with the suggestion of candle light and the reality of electric light that ‘looks’ like candles.

The production begins with the men entering lead by a monk, singing Salva nos, stella maris a medieval hymn in Latin. The sound is gorgeous. The procession of the male cast in their costumes singing in perfect co-ordination, in this formation is wonderful. The movement is stylized, rhythmic, intoxicating.

Carroll is not so much interested in establishing relationships as he is in arranging the stage with characters in a certain way. The person speaking stands close to centre stage. Those listening are arranged along the periphery of the stage. Again, very stylized. So it seems to be left to the actor to do the work of creating character because the director is more interested in the language rather than illuminating what that language says.

There is a lot of wonderful acting here. As King John, Tom McCamus is a quiet talking, quick thinking, loose cannon. His speech is almost sing-songy that lulls you into thinking this man is a lightweight intellectually. He isn’t. When he declares war it is quietly and with a lethal smile. There is no doubt this is a dangerous man. At one point Carroll has the King race up to the Ambassador from France and stare him down as if to unsettle him. I think that bit of business is unnecessary first of all because the king wouldn’t lose himself that much and put himself in a weak position. And second because it does not succeed in frightening the ambassador.

Patricia Collins, as Queen Eleanor, King John’s mother, looks imperious and regal in her red gown. Collins is formidable as John’s shrewd, sharp mother. She is a politically savvy as her son. And just as dangerous.

As Constance, mother of Arthur, Seana McKenna also brings her own grace and regal bearing to the role. And when matters turn ugly for Arthur, McKenna is heartbreaking. Her hair is down in mourning for her son. She has lost everything and she is now groping to hang on.

Graham Abbey plays Philip, the Bastard—as in Bastard son. This is a character who is a born soldier, and perceptive in how battles are fought and won. Abbey has bearing and is almost like a social commentator. He stands off to one side, leaning against a wall, listening to men who are silly. He doesn’t hesitate to repeat one characters’ sillier lines. Philip is fearless and takes no prisoners, nor suffers fools gladly. In one of the rare sword fights, he battles the Duke of Austria. Abbey smiles as he lunges and has his opponent on the run. He chases after him, loving the pursuit.

In a political move King John’s niece, Blanche of Spain is offered in marriage to the Dauphin of France. At one point Blanche has to decide what side she’s on—her family’s in England, or her husband’s in France. She is symbolically being pulled in two directions. As Blanche, Jennifer Mogbock has a lovely facility with the language and conveys Blanche’s angst and dilemma beautifully.

There are a lot of battles in King John. Carroll suggests them with various soldiers on either side of the Patterson stage rushing on waving a large flag representing one side of the battle. I fear that all that flag waving might blow out the real candles or perhaps flick them out of their holders. But no.

When the production ends the women enter singing Salva nos, stella maris again with their own stylized pacing after which they are joined by the men, also singing the hymn. The production ends in a subdued dance, as in Shakespeare’s day.

Comment. The Original Practices is an interesting idea, but one wonders if this is all Tim Carroll does with Shakespeare. He did direct Peter Pan at Stratford two years ago that was rather unremarkable and misguided in a sense. And when he says in his program note he hopes that Original Practices ‘creates a liberating environment for the play of Shakespeare’s incredible language” you don’t get the sense that interpretation of the text is high on his priorities. So there is much in the text that is left unexplored. The result is rather boring, good acting and pretty staged pictures notwithstanding.
Produced by the Stratford Festival

Opened: May 28, 2014
Closes: October 10, 2014.
Cast: 25, 19 men, 6 women.
Running Time: 3 hours.

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1 Paul June 27, 2020 at 8:22 pm

Tim Carroll is a terrible director and makes a mess of everything he does. He is now in charge of wrecking the Shaw Festival.