Filmed version of the Stratford Festival Production of KING JOHN

by Lynn on June 20, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

Friday, June 19, 2020. CIUT FRIDAY MORNING, 89.5 fm. King John at the Stratford Festival, in the summer of 2014. Filmed and streamed on the Stratford YouTube channel until July 9.

(This review was broadcast on CIUT FRIDAY MORNING 89.5 fm June 19. This is the ‘script-review.’

Good Friday morning. It’s theatre fix time with me, Lynn Slotkin.

It played at the Festival in the old Tom Patterson Theatre, in the summer of 2014, but was streamed on the Stratford Festival’s YouTube channel yesterday, and will continue to stream it until July 9.

Today I’m talking about the Stratford Festival Production of Shakespeare’s King John. I’ll do an overview of the stage production and talk about the filmed streaming of that live production.

Once again, men behave badly, war results and there is lots of grief.

King John is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays.

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.

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.

This production was directed by Tim Carroll. Carroll uses something called ‘Original Practices’ in his direction. 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.”

Original practices might involve having the houselights on suggesting the production takes place outside in sunlight.

For King John Tim Carroll imagines how the play would be done indoors, which means the production is lit by candle light.

Much was made of this production being actually lit by candle light alone.

Sort of. 

In the filmed version of this production—directed for film by Barry Avrich—we see many candles flickering in the background. One can be dazzled by trying to tell if that is real candle light. Some of the candles in two candelabras  were actually lit.

Only on closer inspection, when I was actually at the performance, did I realize that those candles that seemed to have fire in their wicks were either electric or some other modern invention.

I found Mr. Carroll’s pronouncement that he was using ‘original practices’ interesting. I was also amused when I read somewhere that he said he could be making it up regarding ‘original practices’.

Research aside, in truth one really doesn’t know what the ‘original practices’ are.

The production begins with the company entering lead by a monk, singing Salva nos, stella maris a medieval hymn in Latin. The sound is gorgeous.

The procession of the cast in their costumes singing in perfect co-ordination in this formation is wonderful.

But as the production progresses you realize Tim Carroll is not so much interested in establishing relationships as he is in arranging the stage with characters in a certain way.

Those listening are arranged around the periphery of the stage. Again, very stylized and rather static.   

It’s interesting to note that with Barry Avrich’s direction of the filming of the live production does not accentuate this static aspect.

In fact the use of close-ups and various film shots gives a human aspect to the production. I found that interesting.

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  done quietly and with a lethal smile.

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

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.

Philip is fearless and takes no prisoners, nor suffers fools gladly.  

When the production ends the women of the company enter singing Salva nos, stella maris again with their own stylized pacing after which they are joined by the men, also singing the hymn. Again, it’s gorgeous sounding and the formation on film (and in person as I recall) was thrilling.

While I found Tim Carroll’s staging for the most part to be static and dull, the filming of it by Barry Avrich brought out the human aspect of the rarely done play. It’s worth a look for the fine acting.

While it’s wonderful in this time of isolation to see so much streaming of live theatre (because we miss the real thing so much), the reality is that it’s really television. Watching a filmed version of a play—and Barry Avrich’s filmed version of King John is dandy—lacks that three dimensional aspect; the immediacy and the ‘grab’ of the audience’s attention when you are actually in the theatre watching. Proof? During the streaming there was a steady scroll of comments from ‘viewers’ who remarked on how lovely the costumes were, or how glad they were to see an actor in the part, or sending greetings. How can one pay attention fully to a production if they are so busy commenting with a running commentary? And this film is not the only example. I see that again and again with other filmed performances. Interesting.  

The film of the production is streaming until July 9  on the Stratford Festival youtube channel  along with a bracing discussion before hand with Antoni Cimolino, the artistic director of Stratford, and Tom McCamus and Graham Abbey.

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