Temperatures and passions were both rising at Saturday’s opening night of Bard on the Beach’s King John. On a sultry summer evening we were treated to a heated rendition of Shakespeare’s rarely-performed historical play; a fiery saga of political struggle, double-dealing and loyalty featuring King John – who is best known for his role in the British folklore of Robin Hood and the signing of the Magna Carta.
Shakespeare might be famous for fiddling with history, but Bard on the Beach stayed true to his telling by setting the play in 13th century England and France. Minimalistic set design by Pam Johnson and the clever use of projections for fight scenes made the small Douglas Campbell Studio theatre appear the size of a battlefield.
Like many of Shakespeare’s works you need to keep your wits about you to keep up with the characters and their ever-changing loyalties. Act one opens with King John – who has just been crowned following the sudden death of his brother Richard the Lionheart – resolving a dispute between two brothers.
Robert Faulconbridge claims his brother is in fact the son of Lionheart and therefore should not inherit the Faulconbridge lands – the ‘Bastard’ decides to forsake his title and follow King John in exchange for a knighthood. King John is in dispute with Phillip, King of France, who believes that John’s young nephew Arthur is the rightful heir to the throne of England.
The Bastard proposes that the French and English join forces to destroy the French town of Angers, but instead they forge peace through the marriage of King John’s niece Blanch and the French dauphin Lewis. Of course in Shakespeare something needs to go wrong and in this story the drama really begins when Cardinal Pandulph threatens to excommunicate King Phillip if he allies himself with John.
What follows is a battle, both real and figurative, for the crown. Vancouver veteran Scott Bellis shines as the morally conflicted King John and has many an impassioned speech to rouse the audience with. Young Lucas Gustafson plays duke Arthur with a beguiling mix of innocence and knowing – he is central to the ending of the play when King John must decide how far he is willing to go to remove the threat of being usurped.
Amber Lewis is another highlight as Constance, Arthur’s grieving mother, and she gives a heartfelt and passionate performance as a woman who has recently lost her husband and is set to lose her child as well.
King John is an intense and relentless war of words, but there were lighter comedic moments that had the audience giggling and provided some light relief from the booming bluster of the play.
With so many hands grasping for the crown, it’s difficult to know who to root for and the disarmingly charming Bastard is played with such panache by Aslam Husain that it’s hard not to be sucked in by his amusing asides and attempts at trouble-making. Todd Thomson also does a good job of evoking sympathy from the audience as Hubert, the king’s chamberlain, when he turns from villain to hero after sparing young Arthur.
With lashings of intrigue, strong performances from a talented cast and a fast-moving storyline King John is hot stuff indeed.