Coworker: So what are you seeing tonight?
Me: King John.
Coworker: I’m not familiar with that one, what’s it about?
Me: Well, King John is the one who, you know in the Robin Hood stories? He’s Prince John from those. Er, but that part’s not in the play.
Coworker 2: Oh, I know, he was the one with the Magna Carta.
Me: Yes! That’s the guy! …That’s also not in the play.
Coworker: So what’s it about?
Photo (c) Simon Annand
I completely buy the dating that puts King John early, in the mid 1590s, rather than later as some current critics do.
Shakespeare’s dodgy later plays tend to be all style and no substance, all talk and no action. His dodgy early plays tend to be the other way around: so many ideas and so much plot that the play is overcrammed with them.
Neither makes for very coherent plays – which King John isn’t – but it’s incoherent because it tries to do too much.
The Armenian Gabriel Sundukyan National Academic Theatre didn’t do a lot to clear up that incoherence, but it went some very nice places along the way.
First, 8/10 for the Globe to Globe Formula For Success: leading with regional music, including vigorous drumming where possible, and with a big dance party near the end of the first act. The music was good all the way through, and very filmic in places. I went to the same performance as Silent London‘s Pam and several set pieces felt like a silent film, particularly Arthur’s last-ditch attempt to escape (Pam clearly has unerring instincts for that sort of thing no matter where it is to be found).
Arthur really fell off a high castle wall, which was great. Shakespeare wrote a virtually unstageable scene in which the child Arthur appears on the walls (the upper level), speaks a few lines, falls off, speaks a couplet, and dies. You can’t use a cushion or dummy, because he speaks both at the upper level and the ground. You can’t push a child actor off the ramparts each time, because their parents complain. Arthur here was a stroppy 19-year-old who built himself a tower and jumped off it, which must be the best way to do it (I am also in favour of eliminating the use of cloying child actors wherever possible).
In fact, I really love this Globe to Globe trend (by which I mean two so far, including Edward Lancaster in Henry VI Part Three) of making Shakespeare’s traditionally wet, wide-eyed victimised young boys into little shits. Before being captured and offing himself due to poor depth perception, Arthur slouched around the corners of the stage drinking off-license wine from the bottle. And wouldn’t you? I will say that the scene in which Hubert nearly murders him but Arthur successfully begs for his life was actually very good, probably again because a grown-up actor was doing it rather than a wide-eyed 12-year-old.
Constance was so good that I forgot she disappears from the play after Arthur is captured, which was a real disappointment. Most of the other English and French characters were perfectly fine, if uninspiring. The Bastard had an interesting Richard III-goes-Terminator thing going on, with medieval shoulder armour attached to the right side of his late-19th-century greatcoat, but he didn’t do very much. King Philip and Dauphin Louis were all solid. Cardinal Pandulph was cheerfully camp, which energised his scenes (they’re a bit boring in the text).
Eleanor was eerie, in a way that didn’t totally work for me. As you can see from the image below, she was costumed almost like a doll, and she moved in a teetering, nearly inhuman half-crawl. It was unsettling but it also made me feel very self-consciously “YOU ARE WATCHING SOMETHING AVANT GARDE”, in a way that for example the weird business with the balloons, the rose petals and the slo-mo running in Henry VI, Part Three didn’t.
After Blanche and Louis’ wedding dance party (MORE DANCE PARTIES), Blanche tried to persuade her new husband not to go to war with the English by having lengthy, loud, mimed sexual intercourse with him at front and centre of the stage. I sort of get what they were doing there – commodification, which the Bastard just had a great speech about – and it was very realistically portrayed. The seven- and 10-year-old kids in the row in front of me seemed particularly intrigued, especially when Blanche stood up, pushed her clothes back into place and was rewarded with a round of applause from the full cast and then the audience.
King John was good, vain and insecure. The English in the surtitles was a bit patchier than in some other performances I’ve been to, but one result of this was the spot-on scene description “John decides to throw a second coronation”. That’s exactly what it was: an awkward party he threw himself in the hope of making himself feel better.
Guess how that worked out.
I saw Globe to Globe’s King John at Shakespeare’s Globe on May 17, 2012.