I had minimal knowledge of KING JOHN, I had read a synopsis of it a few years back and it sounded a bit of a hodge-podge and to be honest, I didn't expect to see it anytime soon. But here we are, celebrating 800 years since the detested King John was made to sign the Magna Carta document by his rebellious barons and thanks to a co-production with Nottingham's Royal & Derngate Theatre, I can now finally say I have seen it!
It is even better to be able to say that James Dacre's production was hugely entertaining. I am sure part of that was due to me discovering the play as I watched it but it is also down to some committed performances and Dacre's direction which swept through the play like a dose of salts.
It's rarely performed which is strange as there are a couple of cracking lead roles and a few excellent speeches. Afterwards I wondered if the performers felt more able to barnstorm their roles because there is no accumulated 'baggage' attached to them? I certainly didn't have any previous memories of any of the roles so could enjoy them fresh.
It is considered to have been his 15th play, probably nestling between A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM and THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. At times it almost felt like Shakespeare was doing his own megamix as he populated his play with a villainous King, an ambitious Queen, an out-for-himself bastard son who delights in his mischief, a sorrowing but vengeful mother, a courtier-turned-assassin - all characters who would turn up in other plays of his.
The oddest thing about the play is the abrupt ending - suddenly King John is dying, poisoned by a disgruntled monk. I mean Will lad, what were you thinking?! The really intriguing thing is that during King John's dying speech, he makes a passing reference to his troublesome lords being appeased - so probably the only thing that King John is remembered for nowadays is brushed aside!
As I said, the actors jumped feet first into their roles with no great actor's shadows to hide from. Jo Stone-Fewings was a lip-smackingly nasty King John, relishing in his badness like a panto villain. Alex Waldmann was a revelation as The Bastard, the illegitimate son of Richard The Lion Heart who starts the play as a cynical sod sharing his delight in his actions with the audience but by the end he has changed to a passionate fighter and ends with the rueful observation that England will not be undone by outside forces but from within:
This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.
Duking it out as the fighting regal mothers were Barbara Marten as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Tanya Moodie as Lady Constance. Both has their opportunities to shine - Marten also played The Bastard's unapologetic mother - but Moodie was excellent as the disdainful Constance, fighting for her son's right to rule. Her final scene where she mourns for her captured son was very powerful, it's a shame that her character doesn't appear again after that.
Also rising to the challenge were Giles Terera in the double role of Pembroke and Austria, Mark Meadows as the apologetic assassin Hubert, Joseph Marcell as the duplicitous Papal emissary and Laurence Belcher as the innocent Prince Arthur.
With Jonathan Fensom's fluttery Plantagenet designs and Orlando Gough's evocative score, this was a real surprise and another success for the Globe's Justice & Mercy season. By the way, if you think the photographs are showing off the Globe stage as particularly Gothic it's because they were taken during the production's pre-Globe mini-tour of churches and cathedrals.
Coming out of the Globe Theatre and walking along the Thames chattering away about a Shakespeare play I had never seen before, I felt a sudden kinship with my fellow audience members who had done the same thing 419 years before.