Shakespeare's King John is no black sheep at Bard on the Beach
To the extent that William Shakespeare's King John is known at all, it is mostly known as a joke, as Shakespeare's worst play, and as an example of what it looks like when genius takes the day off. But the actors at Bard on the Beach are thrilled to be exploring the relatively uncharted territory of this rarely produced text.
Referring to director Dean Paul Gibson, Scott Bellis, who is playing John, says: “On the first day, Dean told us to treat the rehearsal process as if we were on an excavation site. We're working on a Shakespeare play that none of us has ever had anything to do with. How rare is that?”
Bellis and fellow actor Aslam Husain, who takes the role of the king's ally, Philip the Bastard, are sharing their enthusiasm with the Straight on the fourth floor of The Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at SFU Woodward's, where they are rehearsing.
It's hard to argue with their excitement. A read-through of the text reveals bold characters and breathtaking scenes. Set in the 13th century, it's about the ongoing military confrontations between England and France. It's also about the battle for the English throne. Although John wears the crown, his young nephew Arthur, the son of John's deceased elder brother, is the legitimate heir. Hoping to gain territory, France takes up Arthur's cause. But in a chilling move, John kidnaps Arthur and orders a nobleman named Hubert to kill the boy. Hubert approaches Arthur, prepared to put out the child's eyes with a hot poker.
The play has been criticized because the plot twists and turns: John hates France, he allies himself with France, France makes his blood hot with fury. But according to Bellis, political opportunism—political amorality—is the point. “John is willing to move anywhere he has to move in order to maintain his status,” the actor, who has also played Hamlet and Henry V, explains. “The play is about what people are willing to do in order to get what they want.”
And, Bellis insists, “It's not just John. Everybody is like that!”
It's true. Constance, Arthur's bloodthirsty mother, will stop at nothing to see her son crowned. King Philip of France abandons Constance and Arthur's cause when John offers a political marriage between John and Philip's relatives—and sweetens the deal with money, regions, and entire populations. “King John reminds me of HBO series like The Sopranos and Game of Thrones,” Bellis says, “where you have a group of characters who are constantly aligning and realigning themselves in a bid to gain advantage.”
And up-and-comer Husain says the play's examination of self-interest is its raison d'être: “All of the shifts back and forth, the fact that all of these characters are so mercenary and Machiavellian, is what makes it so relevant.”
King John has also been criticized because its title character is unsympathetic, but Bellis says that he and director Gibson are plumbing John's internal life.
According to Bellis, John wants to be king “because when you're the king, you're the boss, you're God's anointed. It's that whole thing of sitting in that chair and having the world spin around you.”
The centre doesn't hold, however. “John reaches too far when he commands the death of Arthur,” Bellis explains. Disgusted by John's inhumanity, most of his nobles defect to the King of France—and John's conscience starts to undo him.
“There's a lot of burning imagery with John,” Bellis goes on. “ ‘I am burn'd up with inflaming wrath.' ‘This tyrant fever burns me up.' Eventually, his own desire for power starts to burn him up from the inside. When he had no conscience, he could keep the fire at bay—but the conscience is awakened. At the end, he says, ‘I am a scribbled form drawn with a pen upon a parchment, and against this fire do I shrink up.' ”
“The Bastard is essentially the opposite,” Husain chimes in. “He has ambitions, but in the end he is moral.”
And whatever John lacks in charm, the Bastard more than makes up for. The natural son of Richard the Lionhearted, “the Bastard loves to call bullshit,” as Husain puts it. “The Bastard also speaks in a totally different language from everybody else.” Citing Philip's comeback to a lengthy dressing-down (“Zounds! I was never so bethump'd with words/Since I first called by brother's father dad”), Husain adds, “He almost plays the role of the jester: he's comic, but he always speaks the truth.”
The Bastard's main thematic contribution to the play is his clarity about what he calls “commodity”: self-interested ambition for power and profit. Philip describes commodity as “that sly devil/That broker, that still breaks the pate of faith,/That daily break-vow, he that wins of all”.
Husain says if you don't think the amoral drive for gain still makes the world go round, you haven't been paying attention. “In this world, we are essentially ruled by corporations and self-interest: commodity,” he says. “Everything is about money.”
Perhaps King John's time has come.
King John is at Bard on the Beach from July 11 to September 19.