Review: King John Redux (Pure Carbon Collective)

Shakespeare gets physical at Toronto’s Alumnae Theatre.

The Life and Death of King John is one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known historical plays, and thus one of his least performed. Pure Carbon Collective states that their mandate “is to reignite obscure classical works with an emphasis on physical expression”. While I’d hardly call Shakespeare obscure, the group has certainly focused on the physical with their rendition of the play, King John Redux.

Whether or not this attempt was successful is up for debate. Some of the “physical expression” moments were quite interesting – they formed a throne out of members of the cast, for instance. There were many moments of dance, or exaggerated actions. The attempt to turn The Life and Death of King John into something new was both obvious and, at times, impressive.

I think one of the major issues I had with the show was consistency. While I like the idea of expressing Shakespeare this way, I don’t think it always worked. There were many times when I was distracted from the action of the scene by a cast member performing an unusual movement in the background that overshadowed the focus characters. Since this isn’t a commonly known text, I had a very hard time following the story, and that didn’t help.

Alternatively, there were monologues and scenes that were delivered in typical “Shakespearian” style. I think if you’re going to go with an idea like this, you need to run with it, while not having it distract from the scene – it should add to it.

I also found the costumes inconsistent with this idea of physical expression. While not Elizabethan, they were fairly classical in style (riding pants, vests and capes on the men, long dresses on the women) and looked good for what they were. However, with the physical emphasis, it may have been nice to perhaps highlight the body instead of the “Shakespeare”-ness of it. I think going simpler, like shorts and t-shirts, could have potentially been more interesting.

They also made the unusual and confusing choice of casting stuffed animals in the roles of children. While an interesting idea in theory, this again did not mix well with the rest of the design, or with the physicality.

While the cast made a valiant effort, I must admit that there were moments where I didn’t believe they understood fully what they were saying – and this can make or break Shakespeare. It is commendable to be able to memorize all of that difficult dialogue, but you need to be able to back it up with thought and intention, something I thought was lacking. I also noticed mispronounced words, and while this might be me being nit-picky, they were very distracting and took me out of the moment.

Ultimately, I think there were many interesting ideas in this piece, and if each were more carefully explored on their own, they could be quite effective. This show suffered from too many concepts going on at once.

King John Redux runs approximately two hours with intermission. The Alumnae Theatre is kept quite cold, so a sweater may be advisable.


–  King John Redux is playing at the Alumnae Theatre (70 Berkeley St)
– Performances: July 19 – 21 at 7:30pm, with a 2pm matinee July 21.
– Tickets are $20 adults/$15 students (with ID)
– Tickets are available Online at, in person at the T.O.TIX Booth, using cash, credit and debit from Tuesday to Saturday, noon to 6:30.

One thought on “Review: King John Redux (Pure Carbon Collective)”

  1. Obscure: (of text) not expressing the meaning clearly or plainly.

    Equally, and to quote Heather Billingham: “The Life and Death of King John is one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known historical plays, and thus one of his least performed.”

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