By William Shakespeare
Directed by James Dacre
The Globe Theatre, London
A Globe / Royal & Derngate, Northampton co-production
Wednesday 24th June 2015 14.00
Basically British …
King John – Jo Stone-Fewings
Eleanor of Aquitaine / Lady Faulconbridge –Barbara Marten
The Bastard – Alex Waldmann
Earl of Salisbury – Daniel Rabin
Hubert – Mark Meadows
Stuck in the middle …
Prince Arthur / Prince Henry – Laurence Belcher
Constance, mother of Arthur- Tanya Moodie
Blanche of Castiile / Peter of Pomfret – Aruhan Galieva
Fundamentally Foreign …
King Philip of France / Melun – Simon Coates
Louis The Dauphin / Robert of Faulconbridge – Ciaran Owens
Chatillon / Cardinal Pandulph – Joseph Marcell
The Duke of Austria / Earl of Pembroke – Giles Terera
The Globe stage BEFORE the production started
King John was an unknown quantity to us, and it’s also the first time The Globe has done it. We missed the acclaimed RSC production by Maria Alberg in 2012 due to our general negativity about the history plays. That production cast Pippa Nixon as a female Bastard, and this production at The Globe had her As You Like It co-star, Alex Waldmann in the same role.
“Friends” early booking at The Globe is usually a boon, and here it got us those much coveted back row of the lower gallery seats … you have a back wall to lean on. If like me, you’re wearing a dark blue top, don’t worry. The natural chalk paint does brush off. However here we were too quick off the mark in booking, because this production has also played in churches … The Temple in London, Northampton and Salisbury Cathedral. All the images on line are from productions in churches, as are most reviews.
Had we known it was in Salisbury, that would have been first choice. We once saw Ravi Shankar play in Salisbury Cathedral and it was magic. For King John their trip to Salisbury was part of the 800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta celebrations, not that Shakespeare bothered with either that or the other well-known bit of King John’s biography … losing the crown jewels in crossing The Wash. There is just one line about the Magna Carta, but the production adds a few lines from the earlier play The Troublesome Reign of King John of England, attributed to George Peele.
The production in churches is significant in the way it has been produced … the amount of incidental music is almost unprecedented during speeches. I have to think back to the twin drummers punctuating Peter Brooks Midsummer Night’s Dream and we also have a lot of medieval singing, and black-clad monks in scenes. I’d conclude that because of the acoustics of great churches, the whole would be enhanced. A sunny June afternoon at The Globe can’t really put a foot wrong for ambience in most cases, but I feel a gloomy church would be even better.
Having never seen King John on stage before, the first thing is to assess it as a history play. It’s way more focussed than the dreaded Henry VI trilogy, where you never know who is who among all those county and family and given names. Are Bolingbroke, Henry and Hereford the same guy? The Wars of The Roses confuses me totally, but this earlier period of history benefits from clear characters and a merciful reduction in the trebling and quadrupling up in roles. The cast was only thirteen strong, very light for a history, and I’m sure every member had to do a few spells in black robes as monks. The significant doubling was Barbara Marten, moving from a haughty and powerful Eleanor of Aquitaine to an embarrassed Lady Faulconbridge very rapidly, and Laurence Belcher going from Prince Arthur to the even younger Prince Henry. However, you never got that impression that people were racing from role to role at all. The other thing is that every actor had clear precise delivery making it easy to follow unfamiliar lines. In spite of loving accents on stage, I am beginning to feel they often interfere with clarity. None here at all.
I was pleased that The Globe had chosen to show it in early 13th century costume rather than Elizabethan, well as usual, medieval with semi Beatle boots. There are clear characters, and they kept the English in dusty crimson and the French in blue. The play was under-performed for years, and as reviewers have pointed out, it has two strong female roles in Queen Eleanor, mother of Richard the Lionheart and King John, and Constance, wife of the deceased middle brother, Geoffrey, and mother of the claimant to the throne, Prince Arthur. The dastardly French support Arthur’s claim against his uncle, King John.
Jo Stone-Fewings was a complex, funny and subtle King John. Mercurial temper, sudden trepidation, transparent cunning plotting. A fabulous many-faceted portrayal. The interpretation drew I’m sure from the many film King Johns in Robin Hood stories (probably the animated Disney too), rather than just the words on the page, but he made it all fit. I was left thinking this is a Shakespeare King role to rival Richard III. Two reviews noted that it’s almost a combination of Richard II’s vacillation, and Richard III’s venom.
Alex Waldmann as The Bastard tries out the throne
The key role is Faulconbridge, the bastard. The first major scene has he and his brother asking John to rule over the disputed title. It turns out that he appears to be the illegitimate son of the Lionheart, so he renounces the Faulconbridge title and land in favour of his legitimate brother and is knighted by John, who calls him “cousin” throughout. Well, nephew, actually. The Bastard is the commentator and instigator in the play, and Alex Waldmann never stops acting: every twisted expression, every blatant desire to please the king, every bit of belligerence to the French, is on his face throughout. His great enemy is the Duke of Austria, who boasts that he destroyed Richard the Lionheart. This is marked by him wearing a lionskin. That could have been more obviously a lion, I thought. The Bastard at last gets him to fight, and beheads him off stage, bearing his head back on stage as a trophy.
The second part of the play revolves around John’s attempts to get rid of his rival for the throne, Prince Arthur. He employs Hubert, a citizen of Angiers, to put out his eyes with hot irons. That was odd, because there were several posts with candles on the stage and they were warming the irons above the candles. Feeble warmth, but also those candles on posts annoyingly kept obscuring bits of the action around the gold throne from the lower gallery. Not necessary, and a brazier at the back would have been more frightening and more effective. I thought it detracted from the big horror scene, one of the most moving and memorable scenes in the play. Maybe it had us focus on the words though, by eschewing the obvious tools of horror. This was also a refreshing “no stage blood” production after the gallons swilled over that stage last year.
King John (Jo Stone-Fewings), from an indoor production
The programme notes the interchange when King John is inducing Hubert to murder Arthur. It’s worth repeating as it covers just one verse line:
HUBERT My Lord
JOHN A grave.
HUBERT He shall not live.
The story has John trying to kill Arthur, Hubert declining to do the deed, then everyone blaming John for murdering Arthur anyway. John rightly denies it, then Arthur, trying to escape, falls off a building, or rather here, jumps off a chair, and dies anyway, not that it was John’s fault. But as he’s denying it, they all see the dead body. It’s a much clearer plot than most histories, though like the red hot irons on the eyes, rather muted in execution. Arthur looked perfect, slight and young but sounded excellent. Laurence Belcher looked surprisingly like King Joffrey in Game of Thrones.
Music was a major factor in the production. The three musicians were at stage level, on the main stage, not in the gallery, and always present in black monks’ garb. They were also following the text and score. We could see the large array of drums, gongs, electric organ, harmonium and wind instruments prominently at all times. They played along with speeches, adding percussion and light avant garde sound effects. Many speeches were sung, with both Blanche (married off to the Dauphin of France to promote peace) and Arthur having long major sung pieces. Ecclesiastical singing came all the way through. The music was closely integrated.
It’s a given at the Globe to break out of the stage, into the pit, with a long catwalk to the stage, and two platforms out in the pit. It was on the edge of overdone at times with speeches at ground level in mid crowd. One controversial bit is when the British, French and Austrian armies are besieging the town of Angiers. The citizens of Angiers have to speak from the walls, and they chose to do it from the centre of the Middle Gallery, thus rendering them invisible to at least half the audience. It had the advantage that the armies were staring out at us, rather than with backs to us staring up at the balcony at rear stage, but for a lot of us they might just as well have used recorded sound.
The fights were stylized semi-dance affairs, choreographed by what the programme describe’s as Britain’s leading “Dramatic Violence Company”. Even so, having seen how good Alex Waldmann is at REAL dramatic violence, the fights here were impressive but under-cooked. The dance moves had groups of four on both sides of the stage moving rhythmically throughout other scenes. It occurred to me that like the absence of blood, the violence was toned down for its religious settings.
The play is a history I’d see again, and as I said above, way more satisfying than the Henry VI trilogy. As a history it has a huge advantage, No prequel, no sequel, no damned cycle.
A little bit of irrelevant stuff. A relative spent years tracing my companion’s ancestry back through generations of rural poor until (inevitably) it hits nobility and runs back to King John. My rural forelock-touching ancestors came from Cranborne in Dorset, where the house was built by King John as a hunting lodge. Knowing the way of 13th century nobility with the servant girls, I’d be surprised if we don’t have a bit of related DNA somewhere.
OTHER REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG:
The Duchess of Malfi – 2014 by John Webster, Wanamaker Playhouse (Antonio Bologna)
As You Like It, RSC 2013 (Orlando)
Al’s Well That Ends Well, RSC 2013 (Bertram)
Hamlet, RSC 2013 (Horatio)
Richard III, RSC 2012 (Catesby)
Wars of The Roses: Henry VI, Rose Kingston (Henry VI)
Wars of The Roses: Edward IV, Rose Kingston (Henry VI)
Wars of The Roses: Richard III, Rose Kingston (Tyrell)
King John, The Globe 2015 (The Bastard)