Staff Writer/Fact Checker/Editor
Shakespeare BASH’d decided to crash our little beer fest going on at Junction City Music Hall to bestow on us the historic play King John, a dramatization of the eponym’s (Lesley Robertson) struggle for the throne against his nephew, Arthur (Bailey Green). Often considered one of Shakespeare’s hidden gems, this seldom-staged tale takes place in a land of flaring unrest, as civil disorder, religious persecution, military oppression and the hypocrisy that arises out of political conflict stand vis-à-vis one another.
With this looming destruction, revolt ineluctably transpires, and director James Wallis’ choices to showcase this rebellion are quite intriguing. In order to draw parallels between the play’s concepts and current conditions, Wallis uses the 1970s British punk-rock movement as his focal point, which was one of many examples of groups that retaliate against social and political inequalities caused by corruptive power. The costumes by Julia Nish-Lapidus and Catherine Rainville match this setup nicely.
The ability to situate medieval characters in recent affairs proves how timeless Shakespeare’s themes are. Speaking of which, I am genuinely pleased with how the script is handled here. Not only does Wallis’ directing decision help to enhance the play’s accessibility to a contemporary audience, but he also preserves Shakespeare’s original poetic language -- blank verses, iambic pentameters and all. Granted, there are a couple instances of sneaked-in modern phrases, but these moments are practically meant to break the fourth wall, something that is typical of Shakespeare’s plays, so they get a thumbs up from me.
Furthermore, the actors largely stay true to the BASH’d mandate with an emphasis on the words being said. This cast brings Shakespeare’s subtle and witty puns, innuendoes and imagery to life with correctly timed gestures and word stress patterns. Enunciation is pivotal in Shakespeare’s universe, and all the actors nail it for the most part. The monologues, especially Constance’s (Sochi Fried) are adroitly spoken, as there are gradual rises and falls in vocal range to express their many emotional phases. Even the humor shows the characters’ utter lunacy as a result of this unrest.
Now I’ll discuss what’s been on everyone’s minds – our female John. I anticipated that Robertson would not allow gender to affect her performance, and not only did she fulfill my expectations, but she exceeded them with her crafty and impulsive ways. With sleight-of-hand, figuratively speaking, she’s able to turn the tables in her favour on multiple occasions, which is impressive considering her foregone conclusion. Many challenge her honor, with only The Bastard (James Graham), who also serves as our choral guide, regarding her as an august ruler. Graham is truly having fun with this role, particularly when speaking to us during his monologues. It’s as if he’s a politician selling us ideas, and he really makes use of the space.
I give kudos to fight director Nate Bitton for his creative slow-motion choreography. The fights really do feel cinematic, especially when John and King Phillip (Tim Welham) try to rip each other’s heads off.
There are pros and cons to using the Music Hall as the makeshift theatre space, with punk-rock music occasionally playing in the background. It makes thematic sense given the setting, and it is symbolic of rebellion against traditional theatrical norms. However, because the audience is sitting on either side of the hall, actors, who tend to block each other, may block their view as well. During confrontations, actors usually stand far apart from each other, forcing us to constantly turn our heads back and forth in trying to decide who to pay attention to, since the actors are always active in whatever they’re doing regardless of who’s speaking.
Otherwise, the play is consistent in tone and it’s well paced, with combusting energy in the first act and solemn atmosphere taking over the second act. Overall, this synthesis of old and new dramatic storytelling is astronomically passionate. I wholeheartedly recommend it to Shakespeare enthusiasts and newcomers alike.
King John is playing at the Junction City Music Hall, located on 2907 Dundas St. West, until Nov. 21. For more information visit http://www.shakespearebashd.com/.