Wasn’t it Tony Hancock who said, and I believe it was, “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?” Actually, no, she didn’t. Because one of the off-shoots of the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta is this co-production between the Royal and Derngate and Shakespeare’s Globe, of King John; one of Will’s lesser-known histories, relatively infrequently performed; an early play, not considered to be one of his greats. Geeky me, when I was 15 I devoted the summer holidays to reading all of Shakespeare’s plays. I didn’t understand King John much; and it hasn’t featured on my radar since, until this splendid opportunity to combine seeing a Shakespeare play with visiting the extraordinary Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Northampton, built in Norman times in imitation of the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem. It’s an amazing place – and if you’ve not visited it before, and your ticket to see King John only leaves your curiosity piqued (as it surely will), come back and visit it on Wednesday or Saturday afternoons during the summer. It’s full of history and surprises.
However, not only is it a splendidly atmospheric venue, it’s highly appropriate to this particular play too. King John himself is believed to have visited the church several times, and Shakespeare sets Act Four and the first scene of Act Five in Northampton Castle. Given that the castle fell into ruin and what was left of it was swept aside to build the railway station in the 1860s, bringing the play to the Holy Sepulchre gets us as close as we can to sharing a truly theatrical experience in its original surroundings.
King John is an episodic dash through the highlights (or should that be lowlights) of the eponymous monarch’s life. As an early play, Shakespeare hasn’t got much of a narrative style going on here, it’s more like separate snapshots of the savage sovereign’s reign – his coronation, his deciding between the two Faulconbridge brothers as to who should inherit, the assault on Angers, the manipulation of the French King by the Papal legate to cause war with England, the almost-torture of Arthur, Arthur’s death, and finally King John’s death and succession by Prince Henry. It’s a bit like The Archers but with more blood. Look a bit more closely and you can see traces of much greater things to come. Talk of the clashing of swords and shields presages his more eloquent writing in Othello. Three forcefully meaty female roles look forward to King Lear’s daughters. The character of the Bastard – a complete invention of Shakespeare’s, as it turns out – paves the way for Edmund, also in Lear. King John himself is in some ways a forerunner for Shakespeare’s interpretation of Richard III.
We knew a few people to whom this production would definitely appeal. So a veritable baker’s dozen of us turned up at the Holy Sep on Saturday night. We were joined by Lady Duncansby and her butler Sir William (recently knighted for services to the vehicle bodywork repair industry), the lovely Belle of Great Billing, Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters, our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra together with their Mum and Dad, and Professor and Mrs Plum. The good Professor had previously accompanied us to the magnificent, site specific production of The Bacchae three years ago – indeed he gave a talk at the theatre before one of the performances; maybe one day Prof & Mrs P will actually get to see a play inside one of the Northampton theatres. The production of The Bacchae, directed by Laurie Sansom, and of King John, directed by his successor as Artistic Director, James Dacre, make fascinating comparisons, both extracting an extraordinary atmosphere from an unusual location, encouraging an amazing sense of ensemble from the cast, and creating productions that will stand the tests of time as being definitive for that particular play.
Prior to its Northampton run, the production had indulged in some previews at the Temple Church in London; I’ve not been there, but it’s another extraordinary setting, I’ll be bound. We saw its second preview in Northampton so it is possible that some things might have changed before its “proper” opening. Something that might benefit from a change – if I might be so bold – is what happens when the doors to the church unlock and you enter the building. Hooded monks sing a requiem for the late Richard I, walking solemnly around the rotunda. It’s a stunning opening image. An usher invites you to stand and listen to the requiem – just the first of many exquisite compositions by Orlando Gough. However, with unreserved seats, the temptation is to head straight for the pews and nab the best viewpoint. As a result you only get that stunning image fleetingly – and although you can still hear the requiem from your seats, it’s not as impressive as actually remaining in the rotunda to hear it in full. I wonder, therefore, if there could be some way of imposing a delay on the physical progress of the audience, just so that they enjoy the requiem a little longer.
Guided by the ushers you locate your seat. The church is dark and mysterious, lit by candles, and whatever fading light remains is dramatically converging through the stained glass windows. The stage area takes the form of an enormous crucifix, with the audience in pews either side of the central vertical strut. King John’s throne is at the top of the crucifix – and there are five entrance and exit points on to the stage which enable a constant flow of characters in all directions. As a theatregoing experience this is all enormously vivid. Sitting in the front row, knights, courtiers, royalty, soldiers all sweep past you, their brightly coloured capes swirling and rustling in front of your eyes. The thump of their footsteps reverberates against your feet. They stop and converse just inches away from your face. Their gloriously performed plainsong is delivered directly to your ears. Their intense stares, the glints from their eyes, their mischievous smiles, invade your personal space. Battle rages terrifyingly all around you. It’s a communal experience. You can’t be this close to the action without actually being part of it. And, whether or not you have any faith, there’s definitely a frisson to be derived from experiencing the juxtaposition of all this medieval death and villainy whilst sitting in a House of God.
It’s a rare theatrical event when absolutely everything comes together with stunning perfection. The gloriously atmospheric building. The haunting music and ominous drum beats. The costumes, both lavish and poverty-stricken. A group of actors who have been so well cast in their roles that you absolutely believe they are their thirteenth century originals. And whilst the play itself is rather turgid at times, with some chewy and hard to understand dialogue, there is such clarity in this production that you’re never at a loss as to what’s going on. Every word is spoken with precision and value, every sentence with insight and every reaction with honest expressiveness, creating two and a half hours of sheer viewing privilege. As I was watching it, I could not stop thinking that the experience was so riveting, so stimulating, and so downright exciting that I was incredibly lucky to be there to witness it.
At its heart is a sensational performance by Jo Stone-Fewings as King John. Whilst we were talking about the play before it started, Lord Liverpool declared that when most people think of King John, the Disney version voiced by Peter Ustinov in Robin Hood comes to mind. It does for him anyway. For me, I think of him more like the character in A A Milne’s Now We Are Six masterpiece King John’s Christmas. But my Lord Liverpool was right. Mr Stone-Fewings looks remarkably like the Disney John, but his performance is no cartoon. Calculating, panicking, conniving; this is a true wretch of a man hiding behind a regal exterior. You instantly got the measure of him during his opening coronation ceremony when he hurriedly assumes the crown whilst no one’s looking. We’d previously seen Mr S-F in the RSC’s Twelfth Night and the Trafalgar’s Richard III, but his performance in this production outshines those completely. A terrific blend of charismatic leader and utter degenerate.
Barbara Marten, as his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine, has that classic look of Middle Ages wealthy respectability – she could have stepped straight out from a contemporary portrait. Powerful and dominating, more statesmanlike than her son and heir, it’s a superb performance of control and manipulation. Tanya Moodie is extraordinary as Constance, mother of Arthur, who is King John’s nephew and claimant to the throne. I’ve rarely seen such an intense, moving and overwhelmingly strong performance. Her clipped enunciation is a delight; her stage presence extraordinary.
One of the strongest aspects of this production is not only that the actors are so good but that they are so appropriately cast in their roles. There are some spectacularly dynamic scenes with Arthur and Hubert and I cannot imagine anyone more perfect for these characters than Laurence Belcher and Mark Meadows. Mr Belcher’s quiet demeanour, youthful pallor and innocent expression and voice all create an unforgettable image of the vulnerable young pretender, who died aged 16 – although his jumping off the prison wall is another of Shakespeare’s inventions. His final scene, where he falls dramatically to his death, is staged simply but inventively and I know the Belle of Great Billing was devastated to find the poor lad lifeless at her feet. Mr Meadows’ Hubert looks for all the world as though he would carry out his liege’s wishes no matter how dastardly, and you can see the internal angst as he tries his hardest to comply with the king’s villainous instructions but cannot overcome his innate decency. It was one of the best acted scenes I can ever remember.
Another role that’s perfectly cast is Alex Waldmann as the Bastard. He instantly engages the audience in his soliloquies, talking to us openly and frankly, as though we had been mates for ages. He’s one of us, we’re one of him. We’re on his side as soon as he invites a member of the audience to participate in his speech – in our performance, it was “if his name be…. Justin…. I’ll call him Peter…” He’s one of the few characters who remain faithful to King John throughout the play and although we think of the King as a pretty bad man and therefore the Bastard is carrying out some pretty bad things, we have a sneaking regard for his loyalty and common-touch decency. It’s a fantastic performance, immaculately judged; a fine balance between humour, vengeance and ambition. His down-to-earth manner and slightly wide-boy approach sets him apart from the essential nobility of Ciaran Owens’ performance as Faulconbridge; they may both be of royal blood but only one of them is ever going to get their hands dirty.
The whole cast work together like a dream – Aruhan Galieva makes an extraordinary stage debut as the compliant yet self-reliant Blanche, and the eerie Peter of Pomfret; Joseph Marcell, a hard-as-nails papal legate Pandulph whom you wouldn’t trust further than you could swing your incense burner; Simon Coates, a delightfully manipulable King Philip of France, and with great support from Daniel Rabin as the faithful Salisbury and Giles Terera as the bloodthirsty Austria.
In 48 years of theatregoing I can only think of a handful of Shakespeare productions on a par with this. Judi Dench in the RSC’s 1976 Comedy of Errors. The Oxford Shakespeare Company’s chilling Macbeth. Albert Finney as Hamlet. For clarity of vision, for intense atmosphere, for immaculate performances and for all-round satisfaction, this is about as good as it gets. After it finishes its Northampton run, it plays Salisbury Cathedral for the last week of May then is at the Globe in June. I can’t recommend this highly enough. Simply a triumph.
P.S. I was travelling on the train back from Euston on Monday afternoon, and, as I was preparing to get off at Northampton, I recognised someone also getting their bags together before getting off the train. It was Arthur. Who would have guessed that the young Duke of Brittany would have been on the same commute? I resolved that if we stopped at the same pelican crossing walking into town I would have complimented him on his performance. However, he made a beeline for the chocolate counter of W H Smiths, so an embarrassing moment was avoided.