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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
KING JOHN
at Shakespeare's Globe

MORAL GRAVITY
By FIONA MOUNTFORD

  Daniel Rabin, Barbara Marten, Jo Stone-Fewings, Aruhan Galieva and Alex Waldmann/ Ph: Bronwen Sharp

If there is one thing we expect from the rulers in Shakespeare’s history plays, it’s strong definition. Whether it’s the vision of Henry V or the malignity of Richard III, what matters is a set of clearly defined characteristics that we can savour over the unfolding of the five acts. King John, a slippery, tricky monarch with no easily discernible centre of moral gravity, has none of this, making it no surprise that the play bearing his name is rarely performed.
 
It has never been staged at Shakespeare’s Globe before, but I’d be willing to bet that James Dacre’s wonderfully clear and confident production ensures that return visits are scheduled for this examination of ailing monarchy. Dacre sensibly streamlines the whole unwieldy enterprise, employing a supple cast of 12 and mingling among them onstage musicians for Orlando Gough’s beautifully haunting music. Dacre has his cast play to the ‘"groundlings" (those valiant spectators who choose to stand in the yard, paying just £5 for the privilege), as all actors at this unique venue must, but without having them mug and gurn to the tiresome excesses of too much previous work here. It’s a lovely equilibrium, immaculately maintained.
 
The plot of King John is a tangle of quick-change events, often disconcertingly removed from the customary realm of cause and effect. John’s tenuously held-together kingdom is under threat from a number of sources both at home and abroad, not least from the claim to the throne of his young nephew Arthur, vocally upheld by the latter’s mother, Constance. In this play so much happens so quickly, not to mention so randomly, that it is often easy to find oneself bemused (has John really just been excommunicated by a papal legate? Nope, hold on, all’s good with Rome again), but Dacre’s staging provides a steady guiding hand. His opening tableau offers the perfect statement of intent. When John’s coronation is interrupted by a bustling messenger from enemy France, John snatches up his crown and makes a hasty dash for the throne, like a schoolboy caught snaffling sweets. One can hardly imagine Henry V behaving in this way.
 
Jo Stone-Fewings catches well the shimmering array of emotions that John works through. He is by turns crafty, mercurial, glowering and wry, a weak king in the mould of Richard II but without the jewel-like poetry. John adopts, rather desperately, Philip "The Bastard" Faulconbridge as his new favourite, a man facing inheritance issues of his own, and Alex Waldmann, a notable member of the RSC over the past few years, flourishes in the part. He makes the Bastard uncouth but energetic, and by Act Five he’s the nearest we’re going to get to patriotism or heroism.
 
The women, sidelined as ever by history, have small but striking parts. Barbara Marten glowers implacably as John’s indomitable mother Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Tanya Moodie trembles with passionate conviction as Constance. This is, paradoxically, a memorable production of a largely forgettable play.

 


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