shakespeareances.comCaricature of Shakespeare



King John

Children Will Be Children, and Kings, Too

Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario
Wednesday, August 27, 2014, Aisle 6, D–5&6, center grandstand of thrust stage
Directed by Tim Carroll

King John in breast plate and hip armor, armored gloves over a black floral cloak, a ruff collar, a red cape, a sword at his hilt, and a simple gold crown
King John (Tom McCamus) addresses the French army and citizens of Angiers in the Stratford Festival production of William Shakespeare's King John at the Tom Patterson Theatre. Photo by David Hou, Stratford Festival.

We're in Canada. We seemed to have gone to a hockey fight, and a Shakespeare play broke out. In the first portion of the Stratford Festival's production of William Shakespeare's King John, mighty monarchs speaking sterling iambic pentameter verse squabble like children over who has first dibs to the monkey bars. But as the sun sets (literally) on director Tim Carroll's attempt to present this play in the manner Shakespeare's original company might have, the presentation begins to resemble a ceremonial brass on a renaissance lord and lady's grave, and what originally might have been two hours' traffic upon the stage becomes three-hours' gridlock at the Tom Patterson Theatre.

Carroll returns to Stratford a year after doing Romeo and Juliet in "original practices" format, though Carroll, in his director's notes, has his own meaning for the phrase. "The game I call 'Original Practices' is one where I use whatever theater-historical evidence seems interesting and suggestive to create a space where the actors and the audience can combine their imaginations. I have no idea if this is 'how they would have done it'; I just hope it creates a liberating environment for the play of Shakespeare's incredible language."

The Patterson's deep thrust stage is entirely bare except for two wrought iron candelabra stands at the back. Hanging from the ceiling are eight chandeliers in two rows, and on the candelabras and chandeliers, real candles burn. Part of Carroll's theory of how the plays may have been performed indoors in Shakespeare's time is that sunlight through windows would have supplemented the candlelight, but as the play wore on, the afternoon sun would set. Thus, a dusky gloom gradually settles over the stage as the play nears its end (though only houselights appear to be in use for this production, lighting designer Kevin Fraser earns kudos for pulling off the gradual dusking effect). Carolyn M. Smith's costumes are authentically Elizabethan, from ruff collars to high-heeled shoes. When all is combined with Shakespeare's poetry-prominent script—as with Richard II, the entire play is in verse and uses many rhyming couplets—you get a Shakespearean pageant more than a play.

Except that Shakespeare wrote singular characters whose personalities peer through this formal verse structure, and this company plays those personalities to the hilt. The result is grandiloquent speeches spoken with childish antics as the English and French face off before Angiers.

When King John of England says,
      "Say, shall the current of our right run on,
      Whose passage, vexed with thy impediment,
      Shall leave his native channel and o'erswell
      With course disturbed even thy confining shores,
      Unless thou let his silver water keep
      A peaceful progress to the ocean?"
Tom McCamus playing him really means, "Get lost, booger butt!"

When King Philip of France replies,
     "England, thou has not saved one drop of blood
     In this hot trial more than we of France;
     Rather, lost more. And by this hand I swear,
     That sways the earth this climate overlooks,
     Before we will lay down our just-borne arms,
     We'll put thee down 'gainst whom these arms we bear,
     Or add a royal number to the dead,
     Gracing the scroll that tells of this war's loss
     With slaughter coupled to the name of Kings,"
Peter Hutt playing him really means, "Yeah? Well, you smell, too, butthead!"

The rest of their entourages are like a gang of hurling nya-nya-nya-nya-ers, from Queen Eleanor (John's mother, played by Patricia Collins) braying at Constance (Seana McKenna), Philip the Bastard (Graham Abbey) barking at the Duke of Austria (Sean Arbuckle), and Blanche (John's niece, played by Jennifer Mogbock), and Lewis the Dauphin (Philip's son, played by Antoine Yared) sniping in the general direction of the other party. Meanwhile, the Angiers citizens egg them on with the Shakespearean equivalent of "Fight! Fight! Lucy and Snoopy are having a fight!" All this over the regal rights of Arthur, son of King John's elder brother Geoffrey, who, as a young boy (played by accomplished child actor Noah Jalava) proves the most mature of the whole lot: "I would that I were low laid in my grave. I am not worth this coil that's made for me."

The biggest kid of all is King John. McCamus plays him with a personality stuck at 14: impetuous, careless, and disrespectful of everyone and everything except his mother (on whom he relies for his power). As everybody else bows upon the entrance of the Pope's legate, Cardinal Pandulph (Brian Tree), McCamus's John fidgets, paces sulkily, and demonstratively ignores a lecture he thinks has no consequence. Just the way McCamus looks at somebody or hyperactively switches direction in his speech elicits laughter in the audience. After his forces have captured Arthur, the young prince says, "O, this will make my mother die with grief," and McCamus hilariously nods with glee and barely perceptibly says, "Yeah!"

The second biggest kid of all is Philip, the bastard son of John's elder brother and preceding king, Richard the Lionhearted. Abbey makes him a stud-muffin barely turned 20. He comes on with his legitimate younger brother Robert Faulconbridge (Daniel Briere) arguing that he could well be a bastard but he still deserves to be the Faulconbridge heir; but when he is identified as Richard's illegitimate son, he leaps five feet off the ground and gladly gives over his inheritance for knightly honor. After the second battle at Angiers, the Bastard returns to the stage bearing Austria's lion shawl and severed head and, while he speaks one of his many soliloquies, hands the head to a man in the audience. The Bastard serves as a social conscience chorus for the play, and at times you can hear him poking fun at Shakespeare himself. "By heaven, these scroyles of Angiers flout you, kings, and stand securely on their battlements, as in a theater, whence they gape and point at your industrious scenes and acts of death," he says to Philip and John. After peace is made, prompted by those citizens of Angiers proposing a marriage between Blanche and Lewis, the Bastard delivers one of Shakespeare's great (but, being in this seldom-staged play, ignored) soliloquies on "commodity," a foretaste of the Falstaff to come later in the canon. "Since kings break faith upon commodity, Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee."

Except for the Bastard, it's hard to find any heroes in King John, and the Bastard is a very cynic. But everybody else is duplicitous. Philip first breaks his oath to Arthur and then to John. Lewis agrees to marry Blanche and then urges combat with England minutes later. The Cardinal incites wars to push the Pope's power. And John—well, he's John—he can't help himself. Constance, as played by McKenna, is the ultimate stage mom, promoting her son's claim to the throne more for the fact that she wants to push Eleanor out of the Dowager Queen role than for the fact—a legal one, by the way—that Arthur really should have been crowned king ahead of John.

The ubiquitous nature of duplicity is represented in the character of Hubert (Wayne Best), a citizen of Angiers assigned to be Arthur's prison keeper. He swears fealty to King John and agrees to poke out Arthur's eyes with hot tongs and then kill him, but he gives way to the young prince's pleadings. He then falsely reports to the king that Arthur is dead just as John is trying to assure the barons he has not ordered the prince's murder. The barons then accuse Hubert of being the murderer, confirmed, in their minds, when they find Arthur's dead body (he fell from the battlements while trying to escape). Hubert, meanwhile, tells the king the truth, the king sends him to tell the barons the truth, but they know it's not the truth because they've already seen Arthur dead. Poor Hubert, a pure man of duty, is left to grieve over the boy's body alone and castigated. The scene in which the king chastises Hubert as perpetrator of the murder while Hubert maneuvers an opening through which he can deliver the truth without incurring the king's wrath for disobeying his orders is electric theater in the playing of McCamus and Best.

Constance in black dress and cape with silver necklesses, ruff wrists cuffs and collar, and black gloves points to Arthur in armored breast plate, gold patterened cape, ruff collar, pleated baggy pants and gloves and cap, with the Dauphin behind dressed similarly; one of the candalabras is on the left side of the picture.
Constance (Seana McKenna) pleads for her son Arthur (Noah Jalava) as Lewis the Dauphin (Antoine Yared) looks on in the Stratford Festival's production of William Shakespeare's King John, an "original practices" staging at the Tom Patterson Theatre. Photo by David Hou, Stratford Festival.

But the remainder of the play short-circuits. In the final two acts, Lewis leads a French invasion, the disgruntled English barons join him, the Bastard rallies the king to fight, the Cardinal, having won concessions from John, recrowns him but unsuccessfully dissuades Lewis from continuing the invasion, the Bastard leads the English army with the reconstituted barons to victory, and John dies in a chair while somebody else is talking. The whole play has been more talking than doing, but on its last legs the talking turns wearying. The biggest laugh of the second half comes when, after yet another 32-line diatribe by the Bastard, Lewis says, "There end thy brave, and turn thy face in peace. We grant thou canst outscold us." We laugh in support of Lewis's observation: yeah, shut up, you doofus.

For all his childish behavior, King John in his speeches against France's support of Arthur and against the Pope's meddling (leading to his own excommunication) are thoroughly British nationalism. The play's final sermon, delivered by, who else, the Bastard, preaches the virtue of barons, lords, and the people to follow their sovereign monarchs in all things. Shakespeare seems to be using King John as a lesson in the doctrine of divine right, a lesson aimed at both sides of the equation: the monarch who has responsibilities toward the people, the nobles who are safest in showing fealty to the crown, whoever is wearing it. Despite having two of the canon's greatest characters (the Bastard and Constance) and some fine speeches, King John is yet a work in progress, one that, when Shakespeare returned to the domain of histories a couple of years later, would lead to an unqualified masterpiece in Richard II, which, from a different perspective, touches on the divine right of kings, too.

Eric Minton
August 29, 2014

Comment: e-mail

Start a discussion in the Bardroom