— Lucas Gustafson. Photo: David Cooper
In one of my other lives, as a blues music aficionado, I have contact with a community of stubborn loyalist collectors—some would say fanatics—called completists. Let’s say you’re a fan of Muddy Waters. If you were a completist, you wouldn’t be satisfied with just his greatest hits or even every album he ever made. No, you’d have to have every single, every live performance, every outtake: the complete Muddy. Some of this stuff might be second-rate, some of it terrible. (Even Muddy Waters was capable of recording unlistenable music.) But on principle you’d have to have it all.
Bard on the Beach seems to be going the completist route with Shakespeare. There’s a reason King John is almost never produced. It’s poorly constructed: full of non sequiturs, arbitrary plot twists, and dei ex machina. It’s seriously in need of editing. It has few interesting characters and fewer compellingly dramatic scenes. The story, involving the questionable legitimacy of a king’s title, was told by Shakespeare in other plays with a lot more skill. The central character is a poor man’s Richard II without the great speeches.
Director Dean Paul Gibson has a good go at it nevertheless. He pulls some fine performances together into an eminently watchable production.
If anyone in the Bard company can sell the title character, it’s Scott Bellis, who fakes us into thinking this John’s a tough guy at the beginning, then shows us every degree of John’s weakness until pulling out the stops in a terrific, angry, self-pitying death scene. Alongside him, Aslam Husain has some very nice moments as John’s loyal ally and sarcastic half-brother, the entertaining Philip the Bastard, a cross between Horatio and Lear’s Fool.
The best part of the script involves John’s plot to kill his young nephew and competitor for the throne, Arthur (Lucas Gustafson). John charges his chamberlain Hubert with the ugly responsibility of murdering this innocent kid, and Hubert has to carry some heavy emotional baggage. Todd Thomson absolutely nails the character and gives full value to Hubert’s anger, confusion and woe. As Arthur’s mother, Amber Lewis also does a good job with her great grief, although Shakespeare has her go on way too tiresomely long.
I very much liked Allan Morgan as the quietly manipulative Cardinal, the Catholic Machiavel who is a stock character in so many Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. Unfortunately, the Cardinal’s manipulations are responsible for at least two bizarre plot twists that left me shaking my head at the end.
Jamie Nesbitt’s dynamic black and white projections suggest the almost cartoonish iconography of the Bayeux tapestries, a brilliant visual record of the Norman Conquest, and provide a powerful backdrop to this ongoing English-French power struggle a century or so later.
So there’s a lot to enjoy and appreciate in Bard’s King John, but we’re still talking silk purses and sow’s ears. Shakespeare wrote only 37 plays and not all of them are good. Rather than just going over and over this same, sometimes fairly barren ground, why shouldn’t Bard expand its mandate a little? After all, one of Bard’s best seasons ever paired Hamlet with Stoppard’s Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
There are any number of excellent Canadian Shakespearean adaptations Bard might do: Djanet Sears’ Harlem Duet, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet). Even better, why not mandate Shakespeare and his contemporaries? Devote one production a season to Marlowe or Jonson, Webster, Middleton, Kyd, Tourneur—there’s a body of fascinating theatrical material that almost never gets done in Vancouver. Explore the entire Elizabethan/Jacobean repertoire, see how much Shakespeare had in common with his contemporary English dramatists. And how much better he—usually but not always—handled it.