Going to see a Shakespeare play for the first time is a rare pleasure, especially when I have never read it and know next to nothing about it. So my trip to Shakespeare's Globe enabled me to watch King John absolutely cold, as if it was a brand new script.
I left the theatre thinking it was an excellent piece of writing (this lad Shakespeare will go far!), which is a tribute to James Dacre's tip-top production. Of all the plays I have seen at the Globe, this one integrates music and song into the text in a way that really works, turning it into a semi-operatic experience. Hats off to the cast and the design, which uses an extended platform into the yard to transform the space and bring the actors close to the audience. The upstage area is reserved mostly for three musicians, which is a really bold decision that pays off.
The result for me was a riveting evening as a £5 groundling, discovering how well Shakespeare tells a story. King John is in many ways a vigorous action play like the Henry VI trilogy, but its portrait of a flawed king and its cynical view of politics and of the games monarchs play with war and peace look ahead to Henry IV and to some of the great tragedies.
This is a play set in a period when England and France were both fluid concepts; much of this English history takes place on French soil rather than at home. In Henry V, England and France are distinct countries, enabling Shakespeare to balance patriotic feeling with cynicism. In KIng John, set 200 years earlier, the only patriotism comes from the Bastard, who gives a jaundiced running commentary on the opportunistic manoeuvring that he both witnesses and takes part in. Alliances are forged and immediately broken, young women are forced into dynastic marriages, and peace and war seem to be as interchangeable as in Orwell's 1984. This, not the fleeting reference to Magna Carta, is what makes the play seem relevant to us today. Heredity is no recipe for good governance, as Shakespeare reminds us. Neither is religion. When political actors claim to have God on their side, thorough scepticism is in order.
Jo Stone-Fewings makes an excellent King John, shouting just a little too loudly and moving awkwardly on and off his throne during his coronation. Throughout the play he never seems at ease with his crown, always fiddling with it and never appearing truly regal. He's balanced by some very good performances. Alex Waldmann makes a fine Bastard, forging an easy bond with the groundlings that never seems forced or overdone. And the wonderful Tanya Moodie is outstanding as the grief-stricken Constance, robbed of her son Arthur as part of a political stitch-up between the French and English kings.
Although the costumes for this production are thoroughly traditional, the use of Orlando Gough's music under the direction of Phil Hopkins and involving two other players, is highly innovative. Aruhan Galieva, an impressive vocalist who has sung at Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall, makes her professional theatre debut to great effect, bringing to musical life two minor roles.
This play has the mixture of darkness and comedy that characterises Shakespeare at his best. There is nothing more sinister than John's two-word death sentence on his young hostage Arthur. The words 'Death, a grave, enough' turn into a dark choral refrain. The emotional resonance of the play comes as Shakespeare makes clear through the story of Constance and Arthur that peace, like war, has its victims. 'Raison d'etat' -- or in Shakespeare's word, 'commodity', triumphs over humanity, and betrayal outweighs loyalty, even (or especially) when kings are swearing on oath.
This production also has excellent audibility, and some outstanding fight work and choreography. Shakespeare's new play (new to me, anyway) sets a high standard for other writers who want the Globe to put on their plays, and James Dacre's direction places the bar just as high.