Candle-lit, incense-infused, thrilling and atmospheric, King John as performed at Northampton’s Holy Sepulchre Church was everything you want an immersive theatre experience to be. This little-performed play by Shakespeare made a powerful impact in this unique setting, with the power struggles and violence of the Middle Ages being brought vividly to life. I was close enough to the action to see real tears, spit and snot. As I said, it was immersive…
Coming to the throne after the death of his much-loved brother, Richard the Lionheart, John immediately faces challenges from numerous sides: the barons are restless, the Church is uncooperative, France is spoiling for a fight, and Eleanor of Aquitaine is not the sort of mother to stand quietly on the sidelines.
The odds are stacked against John from the start and he does himself no favours by being arrogant, slippery, two-faced and petty. Not great qualities for a medieval monarch (or a contemporary one, come to that…)
Jo Stone-Fewings portrayed John as vain, greedy and weak, swirling his robes affectedly and striking self-consciously royal poses at every opportunity. Stone-Fewings also managed the near impossible, creating unexpected sympathy for John by the end. The King may have been vain and a fool, but his undignified and unmourned death had real pathos when it came.
The director, James Dacre, never let the pace flag, emotionally and physically. The testosterone-fuelled confrontations between England and France, battle cries roaring, shields and sword clashing, threatening to send candles flying, were balanced by intense performances by the women in the cast, Barbara Marten, Tanya Moodie and Aruhan Galieva.
All three made impassioned speeches, reflecting the influence and the limitations of women during medieval (and Shakespearian) times – Marten’s Eleanor of Aquitaine would undoubtably have made a far cannier monarch than her son. Moodie as Constance, mother of the doomed Prince Arthur, spoke beautifully as her bereaved heart broke, tears flowing, her voice powerful and passionate.
‘Mad world. Mad kings. Mad composition,’ said Alex Waldmann as the Bastard, allegedly Richard I’s son and welcomed to John’s royal family. A sarcastic mischievous commentator on King John and England’s predicament, the Bastard’s direct exchanges with the audience also gave a frisson of unpredictability to proceedings.
Just as striking as the performances and the flickering candle-lit setting, was the music. By turns haunting, ominous and thrilling, Orlando Gough’s score, performed by just three versatile musicians was a special highlight, contributing a huge amount to the audience’s multi-sensory experience.
Staged to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta, and to complete the Globe’s achievement of putting on all 38 plays written by Shakespeare, King John is a co-production between the Globe and the Royal & Derngate Northampton.
The real kings, John and Richard I, allegedly visited the Holy Sepulchre Church often during their reigns – a fact which gave the performance extra resonance and certainly made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, enveloped by such convincingly medieval sights, sounds and smells…