BWW Reviews: KING JOHN, Royal and Derngate, April 28 2015
Northampton's Royal and Derngate continue their Made in Northampton series with their first co-production with Shakespeare's Globe - KING JOHN performed away from the main theatre at Holy Sepulchre Church in Northampton town centre. This production, which marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, has already been performed at Temple Church in London and will go on to the Salisbury Festival before a run at The Globe in June.
Holy Sepulchre is a church that King John actually visited when he was staying at Northampton Castle, and this whole production feels wonderfully atmospheric. Entirely lit by candles, as you walk in to take your seat you file past chanting monks who are circling the body of Richard the Lionheart, as the scent of incense fills the air. It feels other worldly - as if you have been transported to back to the Middle Ages. The setting also brings with it an unconventional layout and seating - with the stage a crucifix, with the audience sitting facing each other across the main aisle. As well as adding another sense of movement to the production, it gives an extra level of peril to the sword fights - as the cast are clashing blades much closer to you than usual - and with the additional risk of flying wax as they run past the candles!
Jo Stone-Fewings's King John is angry, desperate, pleading and resigned as the unsuitable monarch tries to hold on to his crown, while the political ground shifts under his feet. Alex Waldman is a compelling presence as The Bastard - with his biting commentaries and his own courage highlighting King John's weakness. The cast is uniformly strong, but I was also impressed with Tanya Moodie as Constance - her desperation and pleading on behalf of her son was very moving, particularly at such close quarters.
This production is also rich in music (composed by Orlando Gough) which helps the audience understand the plot. And with the whole cast singing, and many also doubling up on roles on top of the challenges of performing in a church, this production must be technically very difficult, but they all make it look effortless. I don't think there was an inaudible word from where I was sitting - even when actors were facing away from me at the other end of the stage.
KING JOHN is not performed that often, but seeing it in a church that the real king used, in a town referenced in the play, with such powerful performances and in such an evocative atmosphere makes for a really special evening. It is fast moving and - despite being set eight centuries ago - it does feel modern and relevant. I would happily watch it again tonight - although I might wear a thicker jumper! I don't know how it will translate when on stage at the Globe - but in a church in Northampton, KING JOHN really comes alive.