Thursday, April 09, 2015

Stratford Festival film: King John

Details on the screening

Written up at midnight after seeing the Stratford Festival's screening of King John, while a few thoughts I actually had during the viewing are with me. Forgive the hasty nature of this post.

Philip Faulconbridge, the Bastard, is a marvelous character, and not just in the sense he's a "type" that Shakespeare will later develop into even greater characters. This was the first time I saw his strength and resolve in the face of adversity as a foil to the waffling nature of his uncle, John. Graham Abbey did a great job in the role, bringing out the playful nature of the character but also accounting for the bitter residue in feeling cheated at what is due. He is every bit as mercurial as King John since he is willing to forsake his claim to his father's lands and income for the potential that lies with Eleanor. Most things I have read about the role laughs at his playfulness without recognizing the darkness underlying many of his lines. To me, this darkness shows up immediately, leaving a bitter taste in his joking from the start. The "commodity speech" isn't an outlier. Abbey's performance was definitely one of the strong points of the play.

King John...what do we do with a character like King John? Tom McCamus did a lot with the role, demonstrating strength, weakness, resolve, expediency, not to mention his flawed calculations, all of which lies in Shakespeare's creation. It's not exactly how I would have portrayed John, but then again you have to live within the constraints of the role. Despite the advertised mercurial and narcissistic nature of John, I'm not sure I fully got that from the performance. There are touches of that nature here and there. But John seems a bit of an enigma outside of the text. Don't get me wrong. I think Tom McCamus did a wonderful job in a difficult role. I think it boils down to how a director wants to portray John, and it's not an easy decision to make. A too-strong John (consistently) goes outside of character, while a too-weak portrayal lends no credibility to his rule and the battle scenes. Shakespeare shows John as willingly handing away major holdings based on an alliance based on calculation instead of the actual losses that occured. In that calculating sense, in figuring out what everyone's price is, McCamus did a great job. He emphasizes a desire for peace and harmony at a calculated cost (albeit frivolously at times), which runs through the text.

If I had to pick one performance that made me love this screening, though, it would be Wayne Best as Hubert, the Angers citizen tasked to kill young Arthur. That task comes with a contrived dose of deniability from King John, and Best wears the troubles of this irrevocable job on his face and in his voice. The dungeon scene was without a doubt the highlight for me.

Cardinal Pandulph's role in the carnage from the battles definitely stood out, too. Eager to call religious might on his side when it comes to enlisting soldiers against heresy, he also shows his impotence at stopping the forces he has called forth. Like most everything else, it's a double-edged sword that Shakespeare calls into play in making parallels between Plantagenet and Elizabethan events.

Other, minor issues:

I guess I'm going to have to get used to the screenings I see having crappy sound, coming out in simple stereo from behind the screen. Despite touting there would be "128 tracks of sound to create a lush, surround-sound experience," I got none of that. You know you sound like a weary snob when one of the dozen other patrons in the theater asks if you can tell someone in charge that the previews have no audio, and your reply is, "Yeah, Lear was like that, too."

Forget what you do with a character like John. What do you do with a character like Constance? Sean McKenna's performance as Constance was strong, yet leaving me disliking her character even more. When is too much too much?

The staging was simple, which I found to be a strong point of the play. Almost everything is left to the imagination, which is fine by me, not to mention it comes closer to the original Elizabethan/Jacobean staging. I liked the simplicity of the scenery, which causes the staging of certain scenes to be well planned and thought out. I thought the choreography of the scenes to be extremely well done.

The casting of Arthur poses a difficult question: how old do you want to portray and cast this character? Fortunately, they seemed to have gone with a slightly older actor, or at least a more experienced one, Noah Jalava. Jalava demonstrates the innocence of a young boy but is also able to express the deeper issues he raises, especially in his scenes with Hubert.

All in all, I though it was an admirable performance. I'm obviously upset with a theater that can take advantage of high definition video (and trust me, it looked great on a huge screen), but isn't able to do the same with the sound.

Coming back to what the Stratford Festival is trying to do with these films, though, I'm a huge fan after only two of them. I'm looking forward to more.

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