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Module of confounded royalty

15 May 2015

Roderic Dunnett sees a 'Magna Carta' revival of Shakespeare's King John in Northampton


THE Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the centre of Northampton hosts a wide range of artistic events. But few could have been as apt as the production of Shakespeare's King John, staged by the Royal and Derngate Theatre in collaboration with Shakespeare's Globe.

Founded in 1099 in thanksgiving for the safe return from the Crusades of a Norman worthy, Simon de Senlis, the church is steeped in history. At its heart is a classic medieval round church, modelled on the church of the same name in Jerusalem. Eight pillars dominate its awe-inspiring curved nave.

One might imagine it a meeting-place of the Templars: the Temple Church, London, and Holy Sepulchre, Cambridge (built 30 years later), are close relations. Most significantly for this energetic and vivid staging, the church was probably often visited by King John, just as it had been at Easter 1194 by his elder brother, Richard I.

An incense-laden, candlelit pervading gloom rendered this production by James Dacre, Artistic Director of the Derngate, incredibly graphic and atmospheric. One might have almost thought the place haunted by royal spectres.

King John is one of the least commonly performed of Shakespeare's plays: a fate it does not deserve. Its quick-fire exchanges centre on the cynical backstabbing between King John, King Philip of France, and the Holy See, represented by the papal legate Pandulph, Bishop of Norwich. Hanging over John are the threat of excommunication, the support of the French for John's nephew and rival Prince Arthur, and the effortless ability of his wily opposite numbers to change sides at the drop of a hat. Only by doing full obeisance to the Pope can John hope to secure his precarious throne.

Jonathan Fensom's adaptation of Holy Sepulchre's later nave, so that everything is played out on a cruciform acting area - together with a rising carpet of faded crimson which spared us intrusive and irrelevant sound; an impressive gold-canopied throne; and the feast of candles - far too many to number - provided an evocative backdrop.

Even more striking was the restrained but telling musical score from Orlando Gough: spanning initial plainchant and shades of medieval carolling to astonishingly sinister effects achieved with minimal forces: eerie soft drumming, selective whining woodwind, and some superlative, haunting touches from soft-toned accordion, all achieved by just three musicians.

Alongside arresting leads from Simon Coates (a canny, manoeuvring King of France), Ciarán Owens as an optimistic Dauphin, and Jo Stone-Fewings as the hapless John, who spurns "the Italian priest" (Pope Innocent) and meditates on "seizing the Abbey-lovers' lands", but ironically doomed to end his days (some believe poisoned) in Swinstead Abbey, Barbara Marten launched the action with marked forcefulness as the materfamilias Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Joseph Marcell, clad in a white woollen robe almost papal in itself, brought a kind of devious moral uprightness to the papal legate.

The quality of speaking, by all, was much to be admired. But one or two in particular set the standard: Tanya Moodie, as the affronted Lady Constance, John's sister-in-law, a dominant presence as the tragic Prince Arthur's mother; Giles Terera as the doomed Archduke of Austria, dominating the stage like a noble Saracen; and the amazingly effective, impudent Bastard (Richard's putative son) created by Alex Waldmann: every one of his soliloquies and exchanges came across superbly.

The two youngest characters, Arthur (Laurence Belcher) and Blanche of Castile (Aruhan Galieva), set the moral tone of the whole play. Belcher as a shy, nervous, frightened prince, clinging to the throne he will never inherit, produced an exquisite countertenor voice, his solos utterly melting; and she, committed to marrying the opposition but growing hugely in stature as the scenes progressed. Belcher also doubled as Prince Henry, taking charge at the close as impressively as Malcolm in Macbeth: an exemplary performance.

The play's other touching character is Hubert, suborned by John to blind or kill Arthur, but won over by the young Prince's eloquent appeals. Mark Meadows brought nobility to this humble and human role: Hubert's grieving over Arthur's body after the boy has leaped from a parapet was one of the most moving moments (Gough's music here especially screechy and unremitting); while the prince's doomed leap, effected simply from an angled chair, typified the excellence and stylish economy of Dacre's affecting and beautifully polished Holy Sepulchre production.

Further performances tonight at 7.30 and tomorrow at 2.30 and 7.30 p.m. Bookings: phone 01604 624811.


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