At Bard on the Beach until Sept. 19
Scott Bellis. Scott Bellis. Scott Bellis. Three good reasons for seeing King John. His is a stellar performance—the best of his career to date. I’ve probably said that about Bellis before, but he simply continues to expand his abilities and he absolutely skewers this difficult-but-fascinating role as the indecisive, dithering 12th century King of England (and sovereign over parts of France).
The character seems to wither before our eyes as the kingdom collapses around him and rebellious factions hound him. The image that comes to mind is bear-baiting as victory is followed by defeat and the king’s former allies desert him. One minute Arthur, the little heir to the throne (amazingly professional young Lucas Gustafson in his Bard debut) is alive, then presumably dead, and then alive again. What was King John to do especially after the death of his powerful mother, Queen Elinor of Aquitaine (Patti Allan) on whom he depended?
This is a seldom-performed play and it’s not clear exactly why that should be so. Under Dean Paul Gibson’s direction, it’s accessible and feels quite modern even though Gibson stays with the medieval period in costumes (by Barbara Clayden) and design (Pam Johnson). The French are clad in blue, the English in red so it’s easy to keep track of who’s who on the battlefield or in the court.
Johnson’s set is spare and chalk-drawing projections on large upstage scrim add immeasurably to the clean, handsome look of the show. White on black or black on white sketches of medieval images by Judd Palmer (of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop—dragons, courtiers, jousters, crowns—are projected by Jamie Nesbitt. It looks fantastic.
Another personal best may be Todd Thomson as Hubert de Burgh, Chamberlain to the King. As King John’s henchman he’s required to do the king’s dirty work but finds himself so conflicted—especially when it comes to young Arthur—that his loyalty is put to the test. Thomson takes Hubert powerfully through all the changes, culminating in a showdown with the king. The play, at some points, appears almost to be Hubert’s and Thomson finds just the right balance.
Amber Lewis is Arthur’s mother Constance and it’s wonderful to see her with a really meaty role. Lewis’s lamentations when Arthur is taken by King John go straight to each mother’s heart.
If it weren’t enough that King John gets conflicting advice, he has the Machiavellian Cardinal Pandulph to contend with. Allan Morgan, appearing in a knock-your-eyes-out birdcage-shaped scarlet robe, is the nasty cleric who plays church politics with the already beleaguered king.
Also fiddling with the king is Philip the Bastard, charmingly played by Aslam Husain (Eilert Lovborg in the recent Osimous Theatre production of Hedda Gabler), also making his Bard debut.
This is a very—and surprisingly—rewarding production; surprising because so few of us have read it and even fewer have seen it. Read the play synopsis and be prepared for the winds of changing allegiances to blow through it. Mostly, though, it’s about a king who’s ill-equipped to rule, who probably wants to do good but has no idea how he might do that. Bellis is magnificent: we don’t know whether to give the king a kick in the butt or pity him.
The weather is perfect for Bard, one of the jewels in Vancouver’s crown. The Merry Wives of Windsor is hee-hawing fun; Bob Frazer and Colleen Wheeler are magnetic in Macbeth; Lois Anderson and John Murphy offer rollicking good fun in The Taming of the Shrew. With four terrific shows to choose from, it might be hard to decide. So see them all.