King John


Wow wow wow. ThIs performance really blew me away. The Globe put together this production in conjunction with a theatre in Northampton  (Royal & Derngate) to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, even though the play has astonishingly little to do with that aspect of King John’s reign. So it used what I am coming to see as the distinctive Globe feel to it – traditional costuming, great use of music, and colour-blind casting.


This is a touring production which I saw at Temple Church in London. So the mood was set by arriving through this labyrinthine, medieval (in origin, if no longer in architecture) set of buildings which house the barristers of London, past Middle Temple Hall (see posts passim) on one of those beautiful spring evenings which just make your heart sing. And then into the church, past the circular section with the Templar effigies (and don’t let the Dan Brown connection put you off, they really are astonishing) and the body of a King Richard lying in state surrounded by monks singing a requiem. Wow. With the reburial in Leicester fresh in my mind, it could not have been more timely. 

According to my pa, my grandmother used to describe King John as not very famous but very quotable, and that seems a fair description. If you have ever gilded the lily, you have (mis)quoted the play*, but I don’t think many people could describe the major plot points. 

They are surprisingly many and surprisingly varied – the tale weaves together an illegitimate son of Richard the Lionheart, rival claims for the British throne, the enforced primacy of the Pope over kings, and the Baron’s revolt** into a tale that seems to have less obvious meaning than the tales of Richards and Henries which follow in the history sequence but all is revealed at the end when the Bastard declares that “This England never did, nor never shall, Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror, But when it first did help to wound itself” and you remember (or your dad helpfully whispers) that it was likely written at a time when the future of the monarchy was in question and civil war seemed a possibility. This production didn’t seem keen on drawing out any of the other points which could have been emphasised, such as the pernicious church, placing its own power above all other concerns, or the nature of grief, or how best to wield power. It struck to an even-handed telling of the tale which let the audience what message they wanted to take home. 

Aside from the eerie parallels with the burials of two Richards, the thing I found struck me most powerfully was Constance’s description of her grief at the death of her son:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
I will not keep this form upon my head,
When there is such disorder in my wit.
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow-comfort, and my sorrows’ cure!

I wondered how the timing fitted with the death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet. The answer is they happened at a similar time (mid 1590s) but we can’t know for sure which came first. It seems to me to be an extraordinary description of grief if not actually experienced, though. Tanya Moodie, who played Constance, was the standout for me in a brilliant and very well balanced cast. I saw that the following night she was at the Olivier awards – I hope the audience weren’t deprived of her astonishing performance. 

The staging made the most of being in a church*** (sitting at pews was an odd childhood throwback) with a very dynamic flow up and down the knave, on a stage built up to head height so we could all catch the action****. As with other Globe productions it was pretty fierce too. I suspect some very sore shield arms given the blows that were exchanged! The use of props was minimal, but with a cast this strong a chair can truly seem like the highest walls of a building, and a fall devastating. 

The music was also powerful, using the organ as well as the usual small band, and the singing of the cast (singing, acting and sword fighting – the Shakespearean triple threat) to make explicit the call backs and parallels which fill the play.
This is, in my opinion, a really brilliant production of a tricky play. It is in Northampton 24 April to 16 May, and Salisbury 27-30 May. If you can catch it, you should. 
*The actual line runs “to gild refined gold, to paint the lily” which actually makes it meaning of doing something pointless somewhat clearer. But we have been using the misquote for so long that I suspect we’ll never go back. 

**Magna Carta was referenced here, but I don’t know if it’s in the original text…

***It did make the wedding service seem a bit sacrilegious, being a pretence but in a real church…

****The audience, somewhat skewed towards the legal mind, unsurprisingly given the venue, could not conceive that this had been thought of when they were sitting down, and many people were overhead complaining about sight lines before the show started. Because of course if you’re intelligent then other people must be idiots and incapable of thinking of these things for themselves. Most of them, thankfully quietened down, but the couple in front of us (who I overheard complaining on the way to the loo) left at the interval.

2 thoughts on “King John

  1. What a fantastic review of what sounds like an amazing experience. You can feel your enthusiam leaping from the screen. And the setting so atmospheric, too- it sounds wonderful. How odd, people are, leaving halfway through a performance- more fool them.
    By coincidence, yesterday I had delivered my BBC History Magazine (yes, I know- very middle aged- but I am) and on the back of it is a big, glossy advert. For the Globe. For King John. With the Royal Derngate & Northampton theatre! I was already tempted- I’ve never been to the Globe and have always wanted to watch a Shakespeare play there) but now I’ve read your glowing review…
    Very tempted.
    Thanks for your entertaining post. I always make sure I read your reviews- they’re one of the highlights of blogging!


    • Thank you so much for your kind words! I did really enjoy it and was just as perplexed as you are by the people leaving halfway through. But perhaps it means my reviews should be taken with a pinch of salt – the local paper really loved Much Ado which I didn’t!


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