King John (Temple Church, 10th and 17th April)

Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!

After seeing the Globe’s production of King John, two images came to mind. The first image is the Globe’s promotional video for its exhibition which shows an inquisitive Anjana Vasan entering the Globe and as she enters the place explodes with characters from the plays. In the video, if feels as if the figures have appeared from the walls of the theatre. The second image is from the current Savage Beauty exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum showing the model Kate Moss in an Alexander McQueen wedding dress appearing like a spectre from the darkness. The image of Moss is both beautiful and grotesque at the same time.

When watching the Globe’s production of King John, the light in the enormously beautiful Temple Church shone across the walls turning the stone to gold, and in the shadows characters emerged from the corners of the church. Indeed, as characters entered from the West, they could be heard speaking and then they started to appear out of the darkness. The acoustics gave the speech an eerie echoing sound. In the second half, as it was dark outside, this effect became even more prominent and at times it looked like characters floated across the stage.

As the light is faded outside the church, the production started in a murky light, but as it progressed and it became darker outside, the light inside became extremely bright. The light picked up the threads in the costumes, jewels and on crowns. The effect was to give a real feel for the transience of the power portrayed, and that we were watching the ephemeral characters passing through. The throne placed in front of the audience is lit by candles looking seductive in the light. Indeed, several characters sit on it as if drawn to it by a supernatural force. The photograph below of Alex Waldmann as the Bastard shows the effect of the candles on the throne.

The stage was a traverse stage that runs along the church and across both transepts in the shape of a cross. There’s something very uncomfortable about seeing attempted murder in a church; when Hubert tries to murder Arthur and again when Arthur slips to his death in the second half was particularly horrifying. There’s also something uncomfortable watching a war being enacted on a cross in a church. When as an audience member you’re so close to the action, it can be exciting to see swords flashing and the sounds of metal on metal as the battles rage around you.

This was site specific performance at its best. On the two occasions I went to see the production, there was a long queue outside before the doors opened. As we entered the space we passed monks who were singing and stood amongst the candlelit tombs. The pews were unreserved, and so it was about guessing which would be a good spot. On the second occasion that I went, I sat right at the end of the church near the throne and musicians and I found that a really good place to sit, with some great views of the action. The stage is very high, but the effect is that the characters move above you. It’s an interesting use of the space, so wherever you were sat you were presented with a very different experience.

For me it was the second half that was the most satisfying. As everything starts to fall apart for John, the music becomes haunting and there are screeches as John moves to excess undertaking another two coronations. The prophesy that John will die on ascension day keeps being repeated, and the whole atmosphere prepares us for John’s death. The combination of light and space creates the atmosphere of excess in seeing `John becoming more and more isolated as he crowns himself another two times. In the air there is a madness created through lift sound, the actors’ movement and the textures in the church itself.

There were some excellent moments in this production. For example, Tanya Moodie as Constance and Barbara Marten as Eleanor dressed as Monks, announce the deaths of their own characters. As the Pope’s envoy (Pandulph Joseph Marcell) persuades the two Kings to obey Rome, they hold, and we are waiting for the moment they disagree and drop hands. Alex Waldmann’s Bastard chides Giles Terera’s Austria knowing that he has killed his father, Richard the Lionheart and indeed gets his revenge by decapitating him and running in with the severed head in his hand like a trophy.

There was some outstanding performances from a very strong ensemble. Jo Stone-Fewings plays John with confidence. Barbara Marten, Aruhan Galieva and Tanya Moodie are fantastic as the women in a play where women are not afraid to speak. Alex Waldmann also gives a strong performance as the Bastard. The Bastard is a narrator, and connects the audience to the play, and Waldmann is able to engage the audience as he communicates with the different sides of the church.

I think the point was in this production that I was seeing representations of beings from the past that appeared before me and then disappeared. Well done James Dacre for directing a very even piece of work.

I did wonder if on a matinée with the summer sunshine whether the effects would be so good. I also wondered what it would be like in the Globe mainly playing to the front. We’ll see.

© Bronwen Sharp Alex Waldmann as the Bastard

Further Information


Laurence Belcher Arthur, Simon Coates King Philip, Aruhan Galieva Blanche of Castile, Joseph Marcell Cardinal Pandulph, Barbara Marten Eleanor of Aquitaine, Mark Meadows Hubert, Tanya Moodie Constance, Ciaran Owens Louis the Dauphin, Daniel Rabin Salisbury, Jo Stone-Fewings King John, Giles Terera’s Austria, Alex Waldmann The Bastard, King Philip Aruhan Galieva Blanche of Castile, Joseph Marcell Cardinal Pandulph, Barbara Marten Eleanor of Aquitaine, Mark Meadows Hubert, Tanya Moodie Constance, Ciaran Owens Louis the Dauphin, Daniel Rabin Salisbury, Jo Stone-Fewings King John, Giles Terera Austria, Alex Waldmann The Bastard.

Alex Waldmann King John Shakespeare's Globe

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