King John (Stratford Festival) @ Stratford, Ontario, Canada, 2014Festivals

  • Rob Ormsby
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Review by Rob Ormsby

Tom McCamus (centre, left) as King John and Brian Tree as Cardinal Pandulph with members of the company in King John. Photo by David Hou.

Tom McCamus (centre, left) as King John and Brian Tree as Cardinal Pandulph with members of the company in King John. Photo by David Hou.

Much has been made of the convention of “Original Practices” (OP) on display in the King John currently playing in the Tom Patterson Theatre at Ontario’s Stratford Festival. These practices appear at the Tom Patterson in the form of a bare wooden stage illuminated by real and simulated candles (augmented by standard-issue electric stage lights), some live music and instrumentation (augmented by recorded sound), a reliance on minimal props and rich early modern costuming, simple blocking, and acting that twenty-first century spectators would recognize as psychologically realistic but that is punctuated with direct address to the theatregoers.

Director Tim Carroll elaborates his vision of OP in his programme essay, in which he seems both to embrace and distance himself from the convention. After declaring that, compared to his 2013 OP Romeo and Juliet, mounted at Stratford’s mainstage Festival Theatre, this production feels like the King’s Men moving plays from the open-air Globe to the indoor Blackfriars. He spends much of the essay describing early modern staging conditions to support his comparison, but he is also careful to call his approach a “game” because claiming authenticity is too “sombre” and implies an anxiety “to get it right.” This game allows him to “use whatever theatre-historical evidence seems interesting and suggestive to create a space where the actors and the audience can combine their imaginations” and to encourage “a liberating environment for the play of Shakespeare’s incredible language.” These sentiments are not unusual for someone like Carroll, a former director at Shakespeare’s Globe, where a loose interpretation of authenticity has allowed directors to appear to forego a strong concept by allowing the architecture, early modern theatre techniques, and a gamesome relationship with the crowd to “release” the meaning supposedly inherent in Shakespeare’s text.

Wayne Best (left) as Hubert and Tom McCamus as King John in King John. Photo by David Hou.

Wayne Best (left) as Hubert and Tom McCamus as King John in King John. Photo by David Hou.

But not all OP take place in identical circumstances; as his essay relates, Carroll’s Romeo and Juliet established a context for importing Globe-like OP to Stratford. In that production, vaguely early modern techniques played out on the Tanya Moiseiwitsch-designed Festival stage, so often praised for its ostensible conduciveness to Shakespeare, but which has a very different atmosphere from that of the current Globe. For King John, Carroll and designer Carolyn M. Smith have truncated the Tom Patterson’s extreme thrust platform by planting upstage a large wooden balconied and pillared structure that resembles the upstage structure on the Festival stage. The resulting space thus evokes a combination of the Festival’s traditional authority and that which adheres to the redeployment of early modern techniques. Still, whether or not the dynamics of the altered space mimic the atmosphere of either the original Blackfriars or the current Sam Wanamaker Theatre is unclear to me.

What is clear is that Carroll’s blocking choices made his approach to OP look thoroughly conventional. Stage action is consistently static: characters frequently make lengthy speeches from along the upstage centre-downstage centre axis, either addressing those who surrounded them or speaking directly to the audience. Not only are characters in these situations very obviously the centre of attention but, together with the nearly uniform lighting (it dims slightly after intermission and perhaps again near the end), the austerity of movement leaves the actors’ voices to do the theatrical work. Carroll’s disposition of his actors, which becomes quite pronounced after only a few scenes, advantages some performances more than others.

Principally, it advantages Tom McCamus’ King John and Graham Abbey’s Philip the Bastard. The focal point of much of the action, McCamus does everything he can to portray John as an erratic monarch whose motivations beyond petulance were hard to discern (purposely, I think). He waves impishly at his French counterpart (Peter Hutt, who returned the gesture), rails Herod-like at his enemies, cajoles his would-be allies, and suffers paralyzing self-pity when events turn against him. He gives few hints that there is anything heroic or admirable about John, especially in his scene with Wayne Best’s Hubert after the latter arrives to report on Arthur’s fate. Best has just shared an emotionally charged scene with Noah Jalava’s Arthur and the contrast between the boy’s pathetic appeal for mercy and the craven hypocrisy of McCamus’ fury is stark.

For those who wish for a more coherent and unwavering figure to latch onto (I am not necessarily one of those), Abbey delivers a fairly straightforward heroism. His Bastard swaggers and snipes but, during the performance I saw, his lionhearted constancy clearly drew the admiration of theatregoers, who laughed warmly at his steadfast braving, particularly when besting Sean Arbuckle’s Austria. Abbey is wholly comfortable with Carroll’s concept and enthusiastically embraces his direct interaction with the crowd, whether he is holding forth at length from centre stage or showing off Austria’s severed head to all three sides of the audience (before depositing the gory item in a spectator’s lap).

Carroll’s encouragement of centre-stage speechifying makes the women’s grief and rage self-consciously theatrical as they appear to perform for the others onstage. While Jennifer Mogbock’s Blanche is more sympathetic than either Patricia Collins’ Eleanor or Seanna McKenna’s Constance, none of them leave the lasting impressions that McCamus and Abbey (with longer, more substantial roles) make. The director’s methods also heighten the performative aspects of war, both in the battles (which consist mostly of banner-waving and drum pounding) and in parleys and debates preceding combat. Yet, if these last instances of theatricality are meaningful, they are not always compelling as theatre, no matter the claims about  Shakespeare’s language.

There are a couple of scenes that prove far more theatrically inventive and interesting than the stand-and-deliver speech-making. To represent Arthur’s leap from the battlements, Carroll has a body double roll under McCamus’ capacious robes while the king processes onto the platform from the darkened upstage area under the balcony. When McCamus sweeps on, the dead body is revealed so that when Jalava watches the subsequent action from above whence he has not leapt, he appears to be Arthur’s ghost witnessing events from the afterlife. Meanwhile, the chanting of “Salva nos stella maris” by the whole cast as they move onto the stage at the start and at the end of the show simply commands the audience’s attention in a way that nothing else in the production does; some two dozen cast members fill the theatre with irresistible sound that makes the space feel more intimate—or, perhaps, more replete with significance—than it has during the rest of the play’s action.

That second chant evolves into a stately quasi-Elizabethan post-show dance/curtain-call, evidently another aspect of Carroll’s OP gaming. It would be nice, however, to experience more such compelling transformations of OP from the director. Stratford audiences are, I think, willing to go along with versions of the jokiness once so derided by reviewers of Globe productions, but the stasis of Carroll’s action does not give them enough with which they might play. The importation to Stratford by a British director of widespread techniques like original practices is undoubtedly an interesting subject for academics to pursue, given the Festival’s long history of theatrical importation. From the evidence of last year’s Romeo and Juliet and this year’s King John, however, it is not quite so clear that Carroll’s game is yet as theatrically interesting.

Author: Rob Ormsby

Robert Ormsby is as Assistant Professor in the department of English at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada. His main areas of research is Shakespeare in Performance, and he has published articles in Shakespeare Survey, Shakespeare Bulletin, Cahiers Élisabéthains, Modern Drama, and Canadian Theatre Review. His monograph on Coriolanus is forthcoming in 2014 in Manchester University Press’ Shakespeare in Performance Series.