James Dacre’s production of King John has arrived at the Globe following its opening in Holy Sepulchre Church in Northampton (where Dacre is Artistic Director of the Royal and Derngate) and a subsequent tour of other church buildings. This makes a lot of sense of the production’s impressive but simple design by Jonathan Fensom. A thick spongy red carpet makes a solemn English cross of the stage, the tail of which carves the groundlings in two like a church aisle. In one corner of the yard, envoys yell their precious diplomatic cargo from a wooden stairway that is reminiscent of a pulpit. And the musicians, normally relegated to the balcony at the Globe are resolutely onstage, their drums and organs and huge wind instruments flanking the golden throne unfailingly, even as it is left empty by its weak king who holds the crown in sweaty hands, like a ticking bomb.
With lines from the play sung alongside snatches of the Messiah, a dark choral element pervades this production. The emphasis on ritual and solemnity exaggerates the impotence of King John, his shaky legitimacy challenged by France in the first words of the play.
Jo Stone-Fewings really does resemble the villainous but mewling lion from Disney’s Robin Hood, propped up by his capable and canny mother Eleanor, the imposing and precise Barbara Marten. But the show belongs to Alex Waldmann as The Bastard, who gives up land and legitimacy to claim royal lineage and a knighthood, and with it the sir-name of his supposed father Richard Plantagenet. His belief in kingship over commodity, in destiny over political proficiency, and in nobility over the marriages and bartering that hide behind it, win us over easily because we are so uninspired by John. Not the Shakespeare’s typical Machiavellian Aaron or Edmund, Waldmann’s smiling unpolished Bastard nevertheless develops a similar easy complicit relationship with the audience. He is unsocialised in the ways of pomp, but he unfailingly acts with noble pride and blunt bravery, where John only chokes and cavils in response to his mother, the citizens of Angiers, and papal authority – the audience get barely a glance from him. The compelling arc of the play is watching the Bastard’s faith fail him, as he sees John (C16th spoilers ahead) succumb to an ignoble death by poison, his country torn apart in near civil war.
A requirement of those static vaulted churches, Dacre’s fluid staging translates well into the cockpit of the Globe, and the cast do excellent work with some of the most invisible but purposeful doubling I’ve seen. The pace doesn’t keep up through all of the play’s relatively slight plot, but when The Bastard, Eleanor or Aruhan Galieva’s strong, misused Blanche of Castille are speaking it is impossible to look away. A satirical history that makes Henry Bolingbroke and son look positively po-faced, and casts their family business into ill repute, this production advocates for King John as a Shakespeare we should see more often.