From the opening tableau, tellingly infused with a Latin choral treatment as the cast took stage for a fulsome view by the capacity first night crowd, it was readily evident that Tim Carroll’s vision for one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays was going to be a memorable production in deed, thought and revelation.
Even in the first scene, with the silent, ever-effective use of hands (silly waves by the two monarchs of England and France) served notice that body language and very carefully framed staging was going to be on par with Franco Zeffirelli at his cinematic best (cross-reference below). And being completely in verse, the sense of operatic flow that finds its way into the rhythm and phrasing of every line demands the same level of artistry from the actors that is the daily bread for the planet’s finest opera singers—just without the melodies.
Carroll was also blessed with a magnificent cast. In the title role, Tom McCamus gave the performance of a lifetime. A stunning range of emotion, superb sense of timing and courage to take risks swirled together (like the save-the-crown wedding’s alchemy under foot) to produce pure gold, even as some of the audience found unintended humour as early madness (an extended bout of cackling laughter when faced with Peter of Pomfret’s—Peter Hutt—prophesy of the removal of the suspect ruler’s crown before noon on Ascension Day) and shuddering tears (having already broken down with the news of his apparent self-ordered murder of the only really serious contender to the throne, it came as a shock to many that this second, lengthier eruption was for his mother). Both of these instances—and others—served to belie the notion that the audience doesn’t truly get to know the principal character because the playwright didn’t see fit to provide a soliloquy or two. Employing such especial non-verbal components as director and actor constructed their collective take on the beleaguered, blustering, bullying king resulted in a fully formed portrayal that most soliloquies can only hope to achieve.
The hand of God meddled long and deep into the action. There’s nothing like the threat of eternal damnation to enforce Pope Innocent’s conniving representative, Cardinal Pandulph (Brian Tree readily epitomizes the warlord without armour). Shakespeare makes numerous points through the actions of the man of the cloth, rightly painting the defender of the faith as a full-blown, sword-less general in King Philip’s (also Hutt, firing on all cylinders whether befuddled peacemaker or bamboozled husband/father) camp. Not least of those is the telling scene where Pandulph explains the fine art of throne seizing to the exceptionally naïve Lewis (Antoine Yared is ideally cast). Hours earlier, Philip’s son became the unwitting pawn in an England/France peace plan, suddenly marrying Lady Blanche (done up with a steady, mature “voice of reason ignored” tone by Jennifer Mogbock). At the height of her “Whose side will I cheer for” speech, everyone on all sides of the looming battlefront offer their hands to the distraught new wife, at one with the physical motif, which plays out over and over again as the false hand of friendship.
The two matriarchs (Patricia Collins in fine form as the mother with an agenda for her son’s royal adventure; playing the mother of “pretty” Arthur—a superbly nuanced early outing from young Noah Jalava whose star promises to shine brightly for decades to come—Seana McKenna uses every fibre of her body from anxious hands to metaphorically “imprisoned” hair) sizzle in their clawing cat fights only to be sent to the wings once their familial duties are done.
Finally, a new hand at knighthood (but clearly an old hand at the art of rationalizing any situation or setback), Sir Robert Faulconbridge (aka Philip, the Bastard) is wise beyond his years in understanding (only topped by the Cardinal’s blessed streams of tithes) the importance of commodities of all stripes to the affairs of state. Graham Abbey heartily devours every word of the most famous soliloquy (Mad world! Mad kings! Mad composition!) soon worshipping at the feet of gain—even if that requires making thousands of widows in the process.
The Bard brings the proceedings to a full-circle close by dutifully reporting the fact that the eternally ambitious King John’s demise came at the lovingly vengeful hand of a monk. Having defied Rome only to embrace his saviour when there was no other way to cling to power (equally damned and abetted by the Cardinal as suited His goals…) it seems only fair that the murderous monarch should be done in by one dedicated to the doctrine of forgiveness and brotherly love.
Carroll completed the holy loop (following a highly imaginative out-of-body experience for the hapless Arthur) by bringing the “chorus” back on stage with the same music but—following the duplicitous actions of all parties—now adroitly accompanied by the silent cantus firmus of blatantly twisting dogma and patriotism so as to suit the brazen needs and desires of all manner of “beloved” leaders. JWR