This is part of an ongoing series of regional Shakespeare coverage. It’s Tori here with the latest in Shakespeare news from Toronto.
Shakespeare Bash’d will be taking on Shakespeare’s rarely performed King John with a gender-bending twist from November 17-21st at Junction City Music Hall. Bash’d has had a busy and successful year so far, performing The Merry Wives of Windor at this year’s Fringe Festival, and Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II in August. I recently interviewed Bash’ds founder and director-extraordinaire, James Wallis, and King John herself, Lesley Robertson, to find out what went into the development of what will surely be an unforgettable show.
Tori: Though King John plays were incredibly popular in the early modern period, Shakespeare’s King John is one of his lesser known and rarely performed plays today. What drew you to King John as opposed to any of the more well-known and popular history plays?
James: I always thought King John was an interesting character study about a corrupt King. I think the idea of the battle of Arthur (the would-be King) and John (the usurper) was a struggle I could understand. Plus, the supporting characters were fascinating, if only for their ambiguity. I thought there were possibilities to look at this play from many different perspectives and have the audiences differ in their experience of the play, which I relish.
Also the text of John is dense and full of harsh metaphors. It’s all verse, which is something I’ve never done before and takes stamina. It’s a hefty challenge.
Finally, it’s a stand alone play when it comes to the cycle of history plays. I feel you need the Henry IV’s for Henry V. Richard II is a brilliant moving play but the poetry didn’t speak to me when I reread it. Richard III is great…but not yet…we’ll do it soon…but not yet.
T: You’ve chosen to cast a woman to play John and from the promotional materials I see that she is not in drag. Why did you chose this? What was your motivation? How does the gender of the title character change the way the text/ performance is perceived?
J: Lesley was the best actor the role. The fact that she is a woman is inconsequential to me. She brings a quality to the character and verse, which is thoughtful, cunning, and unique. I chose her because I wanted to work with her and I thought she could bring a lot to the role and deserved a shot to do it.
Throughout rehearsal we have been toying with the notion of her gender, but ultimately her pronouns have remained male, but she doesn’t play the role in drag, which I think would be distracting. There are essential aspects within the verse, which has facilitated this: titles such as “King,” “Uncle,” “My Lord.” But ultimately, I found it interesting to see her and Bailey Green (who plays Arthur) being forced to mirror each other by putting on a masculine countenance in the world in which the play exists. I think the audience will be intrigued by it but I have no idea how it changes anything about the performance. That will be for the audience to decide.
T: This is the second history play that you will perform this season, what led you to choosing to take on history plays?
J: A combination of necessity, curiosity and mandate. I think that any Shakespeare company has to look at the broad range of plays throughout the canon. It’s necessary to explore that as part of your mandate. But also, I just like the plays of John and our summer reading of Edward II. They were always on my list. They both seemed to fall into place for this year. I mean “history plays” as we term them are still ambiguous to their overall story. King John is about England and John; Arthur’s death; John’s conflict with France; the Bastard Faulconbridge’s journey…all of which, at times in the play, are historically inaccurate. So really “history plays” is mostly just a term from the complete works.
T: Whenever you take on any of Shakespeare’s plays, it is clear that you are using the text and performances are always commenting on contemporary Canadian society, what resonances do you believe King John has on our society?
J: Well I think you always have to look at the play from the perspective of who is doing the play or seeing the play, but also what I think makes Shakespeare so exciting is that you really never know how people are going to react. They could completely differ in view or see the play as representing something completely different than you do. As a company, we try to create an “endgame,” by that I mean “where the story goes,” but truly I can’t control the absolute reaction of the audience and I don’t think I would want to.
I think John is a play about political oppression, religious hypocrisy, and rebellion. I think John as a character is a cunning individual using the scope of his power to gain and is encouraged until the moment it goes to far. I think this play can also be seen as a rousing celebration of John’s reign, but his language is so impulsive and reactive, I see him making things up on the spot regardless of who he hurts or steps on.
T: What has it been like working with Shakespeare BASH’d?
Lesley: Total joy! They create a very safe and playful environment for actors and really encourage a sense of ensemble. I’m very grateful to them for that because King John may have been my most intimidating and challenging role yet. I also appreciate how much a role humour plays in our rehearsals, which is especially helpful when working on a darker, more serious play.
T: King John is an incredibly complex character. He is sometimes the most commanding character on stage, and is sometimes undermined by other characters despite his supposed royal status. How have you been able to juggle these opposing representations of John?
J: Nice question! Yes, I completely agree that that is where the drama lives: John’s slippery slope from a very assured sense of absolute power through an increasingly desperate struggle to maintain that power despite the onslaught of many obstacles. I look to the text for clues for when John is feeling more or less confident in his power and yes, I do have to struggle to maintain a strong exterior in both public and private scenes because John has to convince others that he is strongly in control and therefore, fit to rule. Sometimes being “commanding” doesn’t work for John and he has to appeal to his people with different tactics of bribes, loving words, cunning arguments, etc.
T: As a woman, do you think you relate to the character differently than a man would?
J: It’s hard to say how I’d play him differently if I were a man. My personal qualities are certainly very different from John’s (I usually play goofy, vulnerable, low-status characters) so hopefully that difference might add a freshness to the old “Bad King John” idea.
Many thanks to both James and Lesley for their responses. I encourage everyone to come out and see this show–it is sure to be amazing with such talented and articulate people involved! You can buy tickets for $ 19 online at http://www.shakespearebashd.com/, or at the door for $20.
If you’re in the mood for more Shakespeare this November, make sure to check out Hart House Theatre’s Hamlet running November 4-21st! That’s it for now, check back soon for more Shakespeare news, reviews, and interviews from Toronto!