March 2, 2015, by Peter Kirwan

The Troublesome Reign of King John (Shakespeare’s Globe / Read not Dead) @ Inner Temple

At a hair under four hours (including stalling around the interval), the Globe’s Read not Dead reading of The Troublesome Reign of King John was one of the costliest productions I’ve been to for a long time, causing me to miss my carefully planned coach home from London and buy a new train ticket for £60. Bringing the total cost of my trip to a triple-figure sum, and with huge apologies to director James Wallace, it really wasn’t worth it.

But then, Read not Dead isn’t meant to be a £100 ticket. It’s the peerless model for rehearsed readings, bringing together skilled actors and the frisson of a full-scale play-in-a-day mentality to stagger through obscure early modern plays. The staggering today was a little more pronounced than usual, including one gloriously funny moment as the actor playing Philip Falconbridge failed entirely to materialise for one crucial scene. Yet this aside, this was one of the more austere Read not Deads I’ve attended – at least until the quick deaths and bathetic asides of the play’s climax invited gales of laughter from those who had made it to the end of the fourth hour.

Performed in the splendid banqueting hall of Inner Temple, surrounded by coats of arms and portraits of royalty and nobility, the play’s interests in policy, inheritance and negotiation felt potent on a long traverse stage that lent itself to scenes of pleading and debating. The gallery at one end of the hall acted as the battlements of Angiers, over which a diffident Robert Heard poked his head to order the armies below to call a parley. The towering presence of the town gave focus to the early part of the play, which cleave closely in structure to Shakespeare’s King John as the English and French armies meet before the town, fight, ally, join in marriage and then part ways again under the eye of Cardinal Pandulph. Beyond this, the traverse stage allowed for a certain amount of procession, but more importantly for the long, gauntlet-style spatial structure suited to wars.

Watching The Troublesome Reign is an uncanny experience, the structures and characters of the play familiar from Shakespeare but significantly different. Elliott Fitzpatrick made for an ambivalent John, at once both patriotic and destructive. In his early scenes, standing on English right and presiding over the quarrel of the Falconbridges, he was an admirable figure, dominating the great room from his throne and moving easily among his subjects (a boyish charm revisited when he punched the air behind Pandulph’s back as the cardinal excommunicated the Dauphin). However, in his cynical treatment of Arthur, his callous disregard of his nobles and his increasingly petulant demeanour, he was also a clearly dangerous figure, unsympathetic as he made his way away from the battlefield. The death scene, with him spluttering abuses against the Pope before holding up his hand weakly to accept Pandulph’s blessing, illustrated perfectly the character’s complexities in this version of the story.

The small cast made use of some helpful thematic doubling. A shorts-wearing Heard performed the majority of the messenger figures, running in and out ceaselessly to the eventual anger of the Dauphin and amusement of the audience. Two more messengers, Chatillion and Pandulph, were doubled by Alex Harcourt, who gave a wonderfully drawling performance as both, capturing the characters’ smugness and, in Pandulph, a casual power that drew most of the production’s laughs. Pandulph’s self-possession made him a formidable opponent, emerging from the back doors behind whichever monarch he was currently supporting and making eye-wateringly enormous changes in European political allegiance with an almost careless wave of his hands and recitation. Pandulph became more energised as he accused all of the assembled English – including the audience – of blasphemy. Harcourt was also excellent in a different red robe as Peter of Pomfret, adopting a Mystic Meg inflection and gesturing to the heavens in a detached manner. The fact that an electrical storm began during his first scene, offering a rather dramatic series of lighting effects to accompany Peter’s predictions, was rather fortuituous.

More significantly, Philip Rham played both the vengeful King of France and the bitter, mumbling Friar Thomas, aligning the two figures most invested in John’s defeat. The scenes in Swinstead Abbey were among the production’s funniest as, first, John Gregor’s Abbot overheard the plotting Thomas and threw himself into panic, followed by aligning himself with the plot; and then as Rham performed his own melodramatic death following his taste of John’s drink. Yet these scenes were also the play’s most interesting unique aspect, foregrounding the personal nature of the murder plot and leaving John’s body surrounded by those of the papists whom he had persecuted.

Surprisingly, the production elsewhere didn’t play with comedy as much as it might have done. The scene of the sacking of the abbeys had plenty of potential for amusement, particularly in the reveal of Ella Road’s Alice, a hidden nun, but I couldn’t see from the far end of the hall what was happening during this sequence, albeit the remainder of the monks offered good comic panic. The Bastard of this play is also a more sober character than the Shakespearean equivalent, or at least was in Mark Hammersley’s performance. Marching up and down the stage, clad for much of the running time in the furs taken from Austria, Hammersley emphasised the filial obligations of the character and his sense of honour, downplaying the soliloquies to become a more generally choric figure throughout.

Comparison of the characters of this play with their Shakespearean equivalents might be unavoidable on some levels, but what I liked about the dynamic here was the striving for balance. Hilary Tones and Joanne Howarth played well opposite one another as Constance (in evening dress) and Eleanor (military), both performing with an exaggerated confidence and disdain for proper orders of war that allowed them to stand out within their respective camps. The cocky John was paired with the slippery King Philip, while the Bastard was opposed both to John Gregor’s dour Austria and James Askill’s Dauphin, wearing white morning suit and beaming smugly. The Dauphin increasingly dominated and, while often played as comic, was most effective in his smiling efficiency. In Peele’s play Blanche’s role is much shorter, leaving the Dauphin more space to establish himself early as a key antagonist, and his own scenes of defiance and excommunication were played out as exact mirrors of John’s.

Battle scenes saw plenty of running up and down, but were centred on two standard bearers dancing around one another and setting up opposing camps. A trumpet provided flourishes, beyond which this was a relatively pared-down production, concentrating on words and language. One moment of stylised action involved the young Arthur (Patrick Walshe McBride) standing on the dais at the upper end of the hall and representing his fall by angling his body upwards while stepping down onto the main floor. This sequence was not so much affecting as structurally pivotal, beginning the play’s second half with a key turning point.

The play merits a fuller production, and ideally in a hall with better acoustics for this kind of work. Yet what Wallace pulled out here were the core structural dynamics, utilising an evocative space that embedded power games in its very layout as well as establishing the play’s particular concern with Catholicism and the rhetoric of Pandulph. Thankfully, too, the seats were cushioned.

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