“Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!”
One of the terms most overused by reviewers and publicity writers alike is “timely revival” and this production of King John is no different, coinciding with the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta as it has processed on a mini-candelit-tour of Temple Church and Holy Sepulchre Church Northampton ahead of this run at the Globe. But Shakespeare dropped the ball here with this play, it is no surprise in the watching that it is one of his lesser-performed works and though James Dacre’s production has its bright spots, it can’t cover all of its inherent weaknesses.
Dacre heavily plays up the religious aspects of the play and whilst you can see the logic for the sacred venues and the atmosphere that the candlelight would have created, it’s less easy to see how it works as well at a sunny matinée in the open air on Bankside. Jonathan Fensom’s design imposes a red cross of a stage into the space and fills it with monks, but religion is only part of the story of John’s travails and weighting the emphasis so heavily here doesn’t seem to make a huge deal of dramatic sense (though I freely admit to not knowing the play at all well).
The set comes into its own in demonstrating the oppositions that make up the meat of the play – John against his nobles with their wavering loyalties, John against the papal envoy who would replace him as king, England versus France, the mother of the king versus the mother of his rival, and also in spelling out clearly who is on which side at any certain point. This clarity is much welcomed but it rarely piques the interest in a meaningful way and an excruciatingly long first act proved to be a most arduous hurdle to overcome.
A good cast eased the pain somewhat though – Barbara Marten’s Eleanor of Aquitaine and Tanya Moodie’s Constance doing icy battle to protect their sons, Jo Stone-Fewing’s title character sitting uneasily on a throne he’s not even sure he wants to fight for, Alex Waldmann’s The Bastard trying to convince him that he does (good groundling interaction here too) and Giles Terera’s Austria standing out too. In the larger scheme of things, I think we can wait for the next major Magna Carta anniversary before we really need to bring this play back tbh.