Barry Avrich Brings Stratford’s King John to the Big Screen

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Directing and producing the film version of Stratford’s King John, a Shakespearean drama about larger than life characters, wasn’t much of a stretch for Barry Avrich.

After all, he’d already directed and produced documentary films about Lew Wasserman, Garth Drabinsky. Harvey Weinstein and Bob Guccione.

“King John would be complementary to these moguls,” agreed the Toronto based director, with a chuckle.

The film, with Tom McCamus in the title role, debuted Thursday. It screens again Sunday at many Cineplex and Silvercity Cinemas.

King John is a must see,” advises Toronto Star critic Richard Ouzounian.

It’s also extraordinarily complex, Avrich says, “almost like a House of Cards.” It’s all about rivalries, politics, France and England at each other’s throats and family issues.

“I wanted to shoot this like a very fast paced House of Cards, involving the audience, and to cut it in a fast paced, dramatic way.”
Avrich, 51, has also brought to the screen four other Shakespeare plays from the Stratford stage and the goal is to complete the canon.

Filming a live stage production and making it work as cinema can be daunting. But collaborating with Shakespeare makes it easier.

“He wrote for the cinema,” explains Avrich. “His stage directions and transitions between scenes are cinematic.”

The filmed version, he says, is a hybrid of theatre and cinema.

Avrich and his crew filmed a single live performance from beginning to end at Stratford’s Tom Patterson Theatre last season. The configuration of the theatre, a long runway-style thrust stage with seating on three sides, made it even more of a challenge.

“It was a tough shoot,” he says, “not for the weak hearted.You’re going 100 miles an hour. You can’t say, ‘Give me one more take.’ You’ve got to get it right.”

The audience was asked to stay on after the play ended for another three hours of pick-up shots, close-ups and tracking shots.

“I sit in the truck, with multiple cameras going, shouting at crew members,” he says, about filming at Stratford. “Then, I sit with my editor and he has to put the Rubik’s Cube together. We’re relying on experience, skill — and luck.”

It’s the close-ups that give the production its cinematic quality, says Avrich

“In the theatre, your eye can’t go to a close-up of a reaction, or a laugh or a scowl and they can help tell the story.”

He was able to get those tighter shots, typically missing from traditional filming of theatre, because he was able to place cameras on stage.

“But it requires intense preparations and knowing where the actors are coming and going from at all times.”

Asked about the audience for these Shakespeare films from Stratford, Avrich says it includes the theatre lover, the Shakespeare lover, and “a young audience that’s getting turned on by the power and rhythms and musicality of Shakespeare and the sheer drama.”

Shakespeare, he says,”drives the characters of TV shows that influence younger audiences today. It all goes back to Shakespeare.”