June 28, 2015, by Peter Kirwan
King John @ Shakespeare’s Globe
The final performance of the Globe’s King John (claimed by Dominic Dromgoole to be the last Shakespeare play to receive a production at the theatre, although he is clearly excluding more recent attributions) took place on a sweltering summer evening and was punctuated by fainting. With the play’s religious ritual foregrounded through canopies and incense, the closeness of John’s world became oppressive. It’s a reminder to take sensationalist claims about the shock value of plays causing collective fainting at this theatre with a pinch of salt, as with last year’s Titus Andronicus – the lack of air circulation is a far more prosaic explanation for unconsciousness.
With that said, the fainting in the pit at least relieved some of this production’s monotony. I have been fortunate to see a number of dynamic and tense productions of King John but James Dacre’s production, while containing several individual moments of excitement, was overlong and stylistically incoherent. The battle scenes in particular were amateurish, a random collage of slow-motion, clashings of swords, swinging into thin air, and dashing back and forth, squandering the spatial logic of the play itself for a melee of incongruously moving bodies.
The production’s poor use of space was perhaps a factor of its nature as a touring production. Co-produced with the Royal & Derngate, presumably to capitalise on the Faulconbridges’ connection with Northamptonshire, the play has been performed in a range of spaces including churches, which makes sense of the spatial structuring of a cross, with a large throne permanently placed at the upstage head of the cross and characters making use of a long catwalk. Much of the main stage of the Globe was taken up by a huge array of instruments (many modern), limiting the space in which the actors could move and restricting them to quite tight patterns. Yet instead of making the most of this restriction, the spatial arrangements were messy, armies moving past one another in overlapping patterns and forced to share rather than coherently contest space.
Not only did the instruments take up space, but the music itself was simply horrible. The score felt relentless and constant, often drowning out dialogue, and the jarring musical styles – tedious faux-Latin changing, reedy sax mood music, discordant ominous droning – couldn’t seem to decide between establishing atmosphere or creating a Brechtian A-effect. Worse, several lines of dialogue were sung instead of spoken, and repeated incessantly by individuals or the company, turning the play into a bizarre musical version, yet without melody or harmony. The acoustics of the theatre did not serve the music, and the production’s whole soundscape was ill-conceived and a detraction from the good work elsewhere.
For there was much to enjoy here, particularly in Jo Stone-Fewings’s John. The production had little sense of an overall rationale, but the main pleasure was John’s irreverent response to the overblown ceremony. The play began with a lengthy coronation, conducted in long stages with much prostration and chanting; but, as Joseph Marcell’s Chatillon interrupted the ceremony, John quickly yanked his own crown onto his head and ran back to hop into his throne before welcoming the ambassador. Throughout, John kept up a sneering petulance that nevertheless continued to admit the possibility of sympathy; John was the most forthright, humorous character among the nobles, at least until the arrival of the Bastard, and his confident, ironic attitude to rule, and indifference to other authorities, were compelling.
These traits were reflected in different ways in other characters. Ciaran Owens’s Dauphin affected a similar attitude in his rejection of the Pope, but his was more cynical and less charismatic as he adopted a superior tone and sneered at the Cardinal. Tanya Moodle’s loud Constance drew laughs as she veered between her cheers to God and her performance of humility to Pandulph. And Alex Waldmann, while not the most inspiring or interesting of Bastards, kept up an aggressive defiance throughout, squaring up against Giles Terara’s Austria and drawing his sword on the rebels in defence of Hubert.
The most effective scene, and certainly the most nuanced, was the siege at Angiers. Although the cast continued to be constrained criminally by the crowdedness of the stage, this scene at least made use of the shape of the theatre, with the Citizen standing in the first gallery among the audience in order to turn the balconies into the city. This reversal of the obvious dynamic turned the stage into an exposed platform, on which several small stories played out. The bad-tempered hostility of Blanche to the proposed marriage (contrasting with the enthusiasm of the Dauphin) was the most effective of these, Aruhan Galieva expressing her discontent by yanking her arm away from the Dauphin’s and storming offstage. Laurence Belcher, an unusual choice of a young adult actor rather than a boy for the role of Arthur, was also effective in this scene, reluctant to be the pawn of his mother and resistance to the politics while seeking to disappear behind the bodies of others. Less effective owing to the crowding of the stage was the long holding of hands by the two kings while Philip was appealed to let go or hold on, this key gesture overshadowed by the movement elsewhere.
When the production moved away from music and ritual, it achieved some of its better effects. A slight beefing up of Peter of Pomfret’s role saw the prophet appear at the end of the first half to sing ominously of John’s future tragedy, and in an early scene in the second half John found himself surrounded by monks who revealed themselves to be the characters whose news they delivered – thus, Eleanor and Constance offered rapid-fire deliveries of reports of their own deaths. A reference to Magna Carta was crowbarred in to the final scene and, bizarrely, drew a cheer from the audience, presumably acknowledging the play’s celebration of the 800th anniversary of that document.
Other scenes were less effective. John’s death was played with dignity but little impact, and Arthur’s death – falling forward from a tipping chair and sprawling onto the catwalk – was utterly anticlimactic. Yet the reactions, particularly that of Mark Meadows’s devastated Hubert, did the work of establishing the importance of this death. The appeal to severity worked better than the comedy, as this was the least funny King John I’ve ever seen. Waldmann worked hard to make the most of the Bastard’s asides, but the weary cynicism of his voice lent a coldness to the comedy that felt bitter rather than entertaining.
This was a distracted King John, filled with devices that didn’t quite work and which overshadowed a cast who were far more interesting than the production they were in. It’s perhaps a reminder of the disadvantage at which touring productions find themselves when appearing in the Globe, but more pointedly this felt like a production more interested in its occasion – the anniversary of Magna Carta and the collaboration with Northampton – than in the play itself.
A friend sent me this item, which left me feeling somewhat reassured about my own unrapturous review of King John in the TLS. But controversy about it continues- there is to be a letter in tomorrow’s TLS by someone who thought the Globe production was at least much more successful than the Temple one- which I didn’t see. I do think the cast included some excellent performers, who weren’t able to project themselves as well as they could and should have done because of the relentless music, undermining rather than reinforcing spoken lines, and poor sight lines. I saw it twice, the first time quite round the side, with a lot of action barely visible.
I’d certainly agree that the production seemed to work to undermine the cast Katherine. Colleagues on Twitter tell me that the production worked much better in the church venues, and I can see how the blocking would lend itself better to a venue with that shape. Thanks for your comment!