Bard on the Beach's King John is a once in a lifetime experience
By William Shakespeare. Directed by Dean Paul Gibson. A Bard on the Beach production. On the Studio Stage on Saturday, July 14. Continues in rep until September 19
In my 59 years of experience, chances to see King John come around about once every 59 years. So seize the opportunity to enjoy this rarely produced work. You’ll be glad you did—although you’ll have to wait for satisfaction.
King John is a notoriously flawed script: the story, which is all about political positioning and opportunism, is complicated. John wears the English crown, but his nephew Arthur, the son of John’s deceased elder brother, has a more legitimate claim, and Arthur’s mother, Constance, pushes hard to make her son the monarch. Constance gets Philip, the king of France, on her side, and after a lot of posturing and shilly-shallying the two countries eventually go to war.
The hollowness of the first half is both a function of the script and a function of the interpretive choices made in this mounting. In the text, the stakes feel abstract. Yes, thousands of lives are threatened, but no particular life that we care about—so the political machinations carry little weight. The story is all about status, but Pam Johnson’s set, which consists mostly of a large, flat floor space, offers no strong power positions, creates problematic sightlines, and often places crucial action at an alienating distance. In a scene that explores political cynicism, for instance, John and Philip agree to level the town of Angiers because its citizens refuse to choose between John and Arthur. Potentially, this is an effectively cruel passage, but director Dean Paul Gibson places the action so far upstage on Johnson’s set that it feels like it’s happening in Ottawa. And Gibson lets everybody yell all the time, which gets tedious. A particular offender, Neil Maffin (Philip of France) seems to have his voice permanently set on Shakespearean bellow.
Then, just before the intermission, John captures his young nephew Arthur and arranges to have him murdered. All of a sudden, with Arthur’s life at stake, things get interesting.
John asks a nobleman named Hubert to murder the boy, but unlike John, Hubert has a moral centre. The scene in which Hubert arrives to put out the child’s eyes with a hot poker is devastating. Though loyal to John, Todd Thomson’s Hubert is so passionately paternal with Arthur that his dilemma—and the child’s innocence—had me in tears. Arthur is a heavy role for a young actor to carry, but, well-directed by Gibson, Lucas Gustafson does himself proud.
Scott Bellis, who plays John, is incapable of making an unintelligent choice, so he’s always interesting to watch, and when John starts to fall into the vacuum of his amorality after ordering Arthur’s death, Bellis’s performance becomes a sickeningly effective exploration of psychological disintegration.
Aslam Husain is pleasingly swashbuckling in the plum role of John’s ally, Philip the Bastard, but I’ve got a hunch there’s more depth and charm to the character than Husain has found this time out. And while Amber Lewis exposes some of the vulnerability that drives Constance—another terrific role—her performance too often feels deliberate and contained.
Still, the second half of this mounting contains scene after watchable scene. And, even for Shakespeare buffs, these scenes, so rarely viewed, will feel new.