Q&A with Lesley Robertson from Shakespeare BASH’d’s King John
On November 18th, we’re embarking on a City Adventure to check out the Shakespeare BASH’d production of King John at the Junction City Music Hall. But this isn’t just any old Shakespearean play; the award-winning Shakespeare BASH’d, one of Toronto’s most popular indie Shakespeare companies, is not only taking on one of Shakespeare’s rarely performed pieces, but they’re doing so with a lot of cross-gender casting, offering female actors the opportunity to tackle roles normally available only to men.
We’re really excited about this production and about the unique casting of Lesley Robertson as King John. We had the opportunity to speak with Lesley a bit about this production and what it means to her.
Lesley Robertson: Shakespeare BASH’d is a very fun, accessible and youthful theatre company that stages Shakespeare’s plays in the lively and relaxed setting of a bar. Our production of King John is in the very cool setting of Junction City Music Hall – a hip dive bar with delicious craft beers, cocktails, and vintage arcade games. The play King John is often viewed as strange and imperfect but it is filled with gems of scenes and characters. It tells the story of an oppressive political and religious world in which England and France war over land, family members fight over the right to the throne, and political alliances are formed and broken – and all at great cost to integrity and human life.
CGS: This production pushes the gender norm, as it features a lot of cross-gender casting, offering female actors the opportunity to tackle roles normally available only to men. You, specifically, are taking on the title role of King John. How did this role reversal change your approach to taking on the role? Do you think this changes the character of King John or the overall tone of the play?
LR: It was such a gift to be cast as a Shakespearean male character because I’ve been challenged with great speeches and scenes that give me more scope in terms of what I get to think and speak about. I love playing Shakespeare’s women (who are often intelligent and independent), but some of the female characters I have played have been focused on the love of a man or a maternal relationship, etc. because of its original context. John is the King of England and he has big political problems! Exciting!
In terms of my approach to the role, I approached it the same way as any role (looking for clues in the text for what kind of person I am playing). The challenge in playing John, for me, is not related to a difference in gender but a difference in confidence, power, and tactics. I usually play low-status, goofy, vulnerable characters (because that’s how I operate in my own life), so I’ve had to do a lot of thinking about being in command and using manipulative tactics.
I don’t think my being a female actor changes the tone of the play because we have set it up as a small group of young people telling this story to an audience – we’re not trying to fool anyone – several of us play multiple characters and we play characters both much older and younger than ourselves. I’ll be interested to discover how an audience perceives me as John.
CGS: King John is a lesser known and even lesser performed Shakespeare play. Of all the plays, why do you think this was chosen? Or why do you think it’s usually avoided?
LR: I know our director, James Wallis, always wanted to work on this play because it’s fascinatingly unique, complex, and imperfect with very challenging and dense verse. I feel that our entire team is really excited to work on this play precisely because it feels so fresh compared to all the over-produced Shakespearean comedies. I adore Shakespeare, but there are certain Shakespeare plays that I won’t go to see for another ten years probably. But I’m hungry for the histories and all the lesser done plays! There are some oddities to the play with some characters just disappearing from the play, and it has been more difficult than usual to understand the journeys of the characters, I think, but I don’t know why the play would be avoided other than it might not draw the same crowds as his more famous titles.
CGS: Shakespeare’s plays are known the world over and are notoriously difficult to pull off due to the verbiage. How do you prepare to take on his work, do it justice and still make King John your own?
LR: With Shakespeare I do a lot of preparatory work in terms of historical research and analysis of the language and arguments. Warming up is also key for me to speak “trippingly on the tongue.” But once all that prep work is done, Shakespeare actually feels like a better ride than other works because everything is in the text for you; the language is so heavy with emotion that it skilfully guides me where I need to go. Oh man, I sound artsy! J Forgive me – I’m not used to interviews!
I hope to make King John my own through my own humour and sensibilities bringing complexity to the old idea of “Bad King John”.
CGS: It’s become kind of a tradition with us CityGirls to honour our love of wine in the last question of these kinds of interviews. So sticking with that, if King John, played by Lesley Robertson, were to kick back on her throne, what drink would be in hand?
LR: Great question! I LOVE BEER! Craft APAs and IPAs are my thing! Some current beer favourites include: Amsterdam Cruiser, Railway City’s Dead Elephant, Muskoka Detour, Nickel Brook’s Naughty Neighbour, BrewDog Punk IPA…aw man, I think I’ll go crack a cold one right now! 🙂
Shakespeare BASH’d returns to the Junction neighbourhood with King John, a scarcely performed dramatic gem set in a world of political turmoil, religious oppression, and violent influence. Fresh off their smash-hit The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Toronto Fringe, Shakespeare BASH’d will bring their clear, text-driven, rousing work to the bar for Toronto audiences to enjoy once again.
In this production of King John, Shakespeare BASH’d brings together some of Toronto’s most exciting emerging artists along with crowd-favourite, company veterans. Lesley Robertson (Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet, Hart House Theatre; Two Gents, Shakespeare in the Ruff) plays King John and James Graham (Titus Andronicus and As You Like It, Canadian Stage; The Howland Company) takes on Philip the Bastard.
This captivating show about family, power, and honour will capture the hearts and minds of Toronto theatre audiences once again.
King John runs November 17-21, 2015 at the Junction City Music Hall (2907 Dundas Street West).
Tuesday, November 17 – 7:30pm
Wednesday, November 18 – 7:30pm
Thursday, November 19 – 7:30pm
Friday, November 20 – 7:30pm
Saturday, November 21 – 2:00pm
Saturday, November 21 – 7:30pm
$19 online at www.shakespearebashd.com
$20 at the door