August 2nd I was delighted to take in the Stratford Festival’s production of Shakespeare’s King John.  I was so excited to get to see John as it is not frequently done at the Festival, and with it being directed by Tony nominated director Tim Carroll I knew I was in for a real treat.

One of the main reasons that I enjoy Mr. Carroll’s productions so much is because he likes to use Original Practice for his plays. This goes for everything, from the costuming to the lighting to the way the actors say their lines; I absolutely love it. Another way the original practice really makes a mark on this play is the audience interaction. The bastard Phillip (played by Graham Abbey) has many soliloquies wherein he addresses the audience. During these, there is a great amount of participation with the audience (although I won’t say just what!). This is again a practice that Shakespeare’s audience would have been very familiar with that modern theatre can stray away from. Aside from the use of female actors, it’s just like seeing a Shakespearean play as his audience would have seen it. For a purist like me, it’s an amazing experience, and I find that I can focus on the story more than wondering what the director is trying to do with the play, which is especially helpful with a play like King John that I haven’t seen before.

I found that this plot line was very easy to follow, so I’d definitely recommend it for people who aren’t very familiar with the Bard’s work (as well as the Shakespeare lovers like me, of course!). It’s funny, because while there is death in the play, it doesn’t really come off as a tragedy. I think because it is historically based, the events seem inevitable and therefore doesn’t elicit the same kind of catharsis that something like King Lear or Hamlet does. That being said, it is a fabulous play that really takes you on an adventure with King John and the turmoil of his kingdom.

The issue of death is dealt with in two very interesting ways (however I will try not to spoil them too badly). The death of Arthur, the young heir to the throne, was dealt with in a very interesting manner. His cause of death (I shan’t say how) is very difficult to stage, and yet I thought that Carroll and the cast staged it beautifully. However the death of King John himself is so symbolic and beautiful. The moment he relinquishes his crown, his head slumps and you know that it’s the end of not only his reign, but himself. Like King Lear, without his kingdom he has lost all sense of self to the point of death.

The issue of madness is quite interesting in this play. While it does not occupy the central theme of the play, some of the best speeches from the play are spoken by the characters in the height of their madness. There are two examples of madness in the play and they come about very different ways. Constance’s madness sprouts directly from the death of her son Arthur. Her madness takes hold quickly and seems to affect her completely. Seana McKenna portrays her so well, and especially this scene blew me away. To watch her come out with her hair undone and sputtering this speech about her son was heartbreaking, especially because she denies it so wholeheartedly. Likewise, Tom McCamus’ portrayal of King John was wonderful. Everything from his voice to his mannerisms was totally John and not himself at all. His madness was a slower descent, and it is revealed that he believes there was poison involved. However there are times when he seems aware that his mind is slipping, and doesn’t seem himself, and those moments make his death very difficult to watch.

The acting overall was impressive, and when there are no large sets and traditional costumes, the play relies on the strength of the actors and they certainly did not fail this text. They made it such a pleasure to watch and experience. I was very happy that this was the way I saw this play first; I have a feeling that other productions will likely pale in comparison to the sheer beauty and simplicity of this play.

If you would like to buy tickets, here’s the link! :


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