They really don’t make ’em like this any more: Shakespeare’s sprawling geopolitical thriller ‘King John’ was big in the Victorian era, when pomp and fabulous sets were everything, but has waned in popularity since. That’s presumably because film is a more sensible medium for a globetrotting (well, England and France) historical war story, which telescopes all the most exciting bits of the unpopular John’s 17-year-reign into its indecently incident-packed running time.
As such the generally fearless Globe has never hitherto staged a production. But ‘King John’s time has come, and it turns out there was nothing much to worry about.
James Dacre’s production actually began life indoors, at Temple Church, before transferring to the Globe for a longer run. But it scales up nicely: I suspect it has lost a little intensity and delicacy, but Jonathan Fensom’s set partially recreates the nave of a church on the stage, while the capacious Globe is a natural home for the sundry battle scenes that pepper the story.
It’s a funny old play, and certainly not once of Shakespeare’s best, but Dacre finds room for its contradictory parts to breathe: on the one side, Jo Stone-Fewings is tremendously entertaining with his sardonic take on the scheming monarch, while Alex Waldmann’s charismatic The Bastard works the audience nicely; on the other the ever-reliable Tanya Moodie finds the vulnerable humanity in the histrionic Constance, and Laurence Belcher manages to successfully make us feel for young Arthur, despite him perhaps having the silliest death in stage history.
Binding it is all is a rollicking, not-especially-historically-accurate story about John’s wars with Philip II of France – spiced up with plenty of Vatican skulduggery. Dacre tells it at a thoroughly entertaining clip, and his secret weapon is a small team of musicians whose esoteric instruments – which run the gamut from an organ to some sort of pot that makes a menacing hum – bind the diverse action with an atmosphere worthy of the film thrillers this ballsy play presaged.