King John Opens at Bard on the Beach (Guest review by @NiftyNotCool)

A wonderful advantage of having an annual Shakespearean festival like Bard on the Beach in Vancouver is having the opportunity to see lesser-known Shakespearean works given the same level of talent, direction, and brilliant design usually reserved for the bard’s more well-known “crowd-pleasers”. One such hidden gem is Shakespeare’s King John, the story of John, younger brother of Richard the Lionheart, who ascends the throne following King Richard’s death. The production, directed by Dean Paul Gibson, alternates with Bard’s other studio production, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and plays Tuesdays to Sundays until September 19.

King John Bard on the Beach

King John at Bard on the Beach. Photo credit: David Blue

Do not be intimidated by the play’s lesser-known status, or by the fact that it is one of Shakespeare’s “history plays”. King John is exciting, visually striking, and well-paced, and the title role is as meaty and complicated a part as any Shakespearean actor could hope to play.

Scott Bellis turns out a breathtakingly human performance as King John, whose temperament and tenuous hold on his crown begin to unravel him in the latter half of the play. Bellis’ performance leads King John through an incredible transformation, beginning his journey as an overly confident monarch, every bit a divinely-ordained king, until arriving at the final curtain, a small repentant man, grasping was is left of his destiny with trembling fingers.

Supporting Bellis’ performance is a strong cast. I was starstruck with every rich sweep of Patti Allan/Queen Elinor’s cloak across the floor, and impressed with Bard newcomer Aslam Husain’s of portrayal of Philip the Bastard, elevated to knighthood through more esteemed parentage than that of his mother’s husband. I was also moved by Todd Thomson’s hard but feeling Hubert de Burgh (possessing a scarred face but a pure heart), Allan Morgan’s smooth as oil portrayal of the manipulative Cardinal Pandulph, and by 7th-grader Lucas Gustafson’s brave performance in the tragic role of young Arthur, Duke of Bretagne (I’ve always heard that if you want to see an actor simply be present on a stage, watch a child).

Though Pam Johnson’s set is spartan, the lack of any kind of platform or floor structure creates an expansive playing space over which the characters, splendidly arrayed in Barbara Clayden’s beautiful costumes, position themselves in chess-like arrangements. I found Jamie Nesbitt’s simple projections distracting at first, but soon found myself enjoying and looking forward to the black and white drawings and their child-like representations of the action and location.

Those who are interested in Early Modern and Elizabethan literature and culture will also enjoy King John as an example of the issues of the time depicted in “popular culture”. Elizabethan play-goers would be very familiar with conflict over lineage and crown (having watched the throne of England pass from Henry VIII to Edward VI to Lady Jane Grey to Mary Tudor and finally to Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, all in the space of 12 years), and the sinister and greedy representation of Catholicism (personified in Cardinal Pandulph) would have been the accepted (and mandated) representation of Rome in the newly Protestant country. Being a fan of Early Modern literature, it was a delight to watch Elizabethan values play out across the stage and resonate with our still-held values of family, honour, and decency.

As artistic director Christopher Gaze said on opening night, it is a rare treat to be able to see a performance of King John nowadays. While a Hamlet, or a Lear, or a Midsummer Night’s Dream may come and go and come again, to see a play like King John at a summer Shakespeare festival is to see a celestial event: like an eclipse or a comet, the next opportunity may not come for years (or even in your lifetime), and catching a glimpse of this lesser-known Shakespearean work is a special occurrence indeed.

King John will be playing on the Douglas Campbell Studio Stage in Vanier Park, Tuesdays to Sundays, until September 19. Tickets ($21 to $40) can be purchased by contacting the box office at 604-739-0559 or by visiting Bard’s website at For a complete schedule of performances, please visit Bard’s Schedule page.

Disclosure:Lauren Kresowaty is reviewing this 2012 summer’s Bard on the Beach season in exclusive for, and as such, she attended this performance (and will attend the rest of the season) on media tickets kindly provided by Bard on the Beach. No review is requested from either of us, nor a favorable one is expected either (in the case of a review actually being written). As always I (Raul) retain full editorial control on anything published on my site.

Lauren Kresowaty (Nifty Not Cool) is a writer, theatre artist, and blogger based in East Vancouver. She posts weekly on her personal blog,, and tweets from @niftynotcool. Lauren is currently working on an adaptation of the Greek tragedy “The Libation Bearers” for her friends in Rice & Beans Theatre and following her imagination wherever it leads.. You can get in touch with Lauren by commenting on a post on her site or following her on twitter.

Related posts:

  1. The Merry Wives Delight at Bard on the Beach (Guest Post by @NiftyNotCool)
  2. A Sophisticated Macbeth at Bard on the Beach (Guest Review by @NiftyNotCool)
  3. Macbeth (Bard on the Beach) [win tickets!]
  4. As You Like It (Bard on the Beach) [theatre review]
  5. Othello (Bard on the Beach) [theatre review]

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