King John is the fourth and final production of this year’s annual Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival. And what a powerful force of theatre it is! Over the weekend, I was invited to the opening of this rarely-mounted Shakespeare production. In fact, aside from lead actor Scott Bellis, this is the company’s first experience with the 13th century work, now being performed at the smaller, more intimate Studio Stage.
The evening begins with a lovely opening sequence of black and white illustrations that move about on the curtain, with a bare-floored wooden stage. An overturned large gothic style chair is the only prop, and the costumes (created by costume designer Barbara Clayden) are simple, yet colourful.
The scenes change by way of the hand-drawn gothic illustrations mentioned above, courtesy of projection designer Jamie Nesbitt, who worked with an illustrator to bring his concept to life. This sets a nice atmosphere, the illustrative style matching the period.
In a tale of ambition, tough moral choices, and power struggles, King John is on the throne, however he is soon informed that young Arthur is the rightful king, according to King Philip of France. When it’s revealed that King Philip is actually the son of Lady Faulconbridge and King Richard (“Coeur de Lion“), Philip decides to forsake the Faulconbridge name in order to serve his uncle, King John. For this, Philip “the Bastard” is knighted by King John.
The French (allies with the Duke of Austria) meet the English army outside the French town of Angers. However, when Hubert of Angers refuses to open his town’s gates except to the true King of England, “The Bastard” suggests that the French and English join forces to destroy the town. Hubert injects a good dose of humour when he questions who really IS the King of England?
There are several additional bits of humour injected throughout the evening, another being when King John apologizes to Hubert (Todd Thomson) for his rash behavior later in the play. As King John, Bellis really digs in deep over the course of the play to show the full range of human emotions.
In an odd move, the two countries declare peace through marrying King John’s niece, Blanche, to the French Dauphin, Lewis. “The Bastard” isn’t that keen on this resolution, and openly shares his frustration with the audience.
And so continues the two and a half hour (with one intermission) play. The standout roles are King John (Scott Bellis), Philip the Bastard (Aslam Husain), Lewis, the Dauphin (Daryl King) and Blanch of Spain (Kayla Deorksen). As well, Lucas Gustafson shows a lot of promise as a rising young actor in his role as Arthur, Duke of Bretagne.
King John continues to September 19 at Bard on the Beach’s Studio Stage. Visit the Bard on the Beach website for schedules and ticket information.
All photos by David Blue.