This summer saw a Globe Theatre production of Shakespeare’s King John staged in the historic location of Salisbury Cathedral

[Images by Adrian Harris]

Built in 1258 and with a 400-foot spire, Salisbury Cathedral makes an appropriately regal setting for this production of King John, and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and Royal & Derngate take full advantage of the building’s religious atmosphere.

The audience files in to the accompaniment of a requiem mass, past great bowls of smoking incense and a tomb decked with peace lillies and the armour of Richard the Lionheart.

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Like the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, this production uses only candles for illumination, so sound plays a major role in the staging. Echoing timpani conjure scenes of war and an atmospheric vocal score by Orlando Gough resonates around, rather than getting lost among, the building’s vaulting arches.

It is refreshing to see a cast with an average age of perhaps 45. Jo Stone-Fewings, excellently cast in the title role, is given a greying beard and slight paunch, and his hair is swept across the beginnings of a bald patch. He and director James Dacre (Artistic Director of Royal & Derngate) bring out the sense of randomness in a play where supremacy and success seem subject to chance.

His King John has a Monty Python-esque charm. When the pomp of his coronation is interrupted by the threat of war from France, he snatches the crown, crams it on to his head and legs it for the throne.

The stage is formed of two wide walkways in a cross shape, mirroring the crucifix shape of the cathedral, and is excellently suited for playing out the plays’ shifting political allegiances.

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As Cardinal Pandulph (Joseph Marcell) issues King Philip of France (Simon Coates) with an ultimatum – break with England or break with Rome – Philip stands ‘perplexed’ at the centre of the cross, King John derisive on one side of him, Pandulph deadly serious on the other.

The shape of the stage space also means that actors entering it become visible to some audience members before others.

At the start of the play this prompts much murmuring, craning of necks and nudging of neighbours, not unlike crowds waiting to see a royal procession. It gives some sense of the atmosphere that might have accompanied this play when it was first performed, although of course this building is more splendid than any it would have played in then.

While there is no surviving record of where King John was first performed, it is likely to have been by Shakespeare’s company The Chamberlain’s Men at the Theatre in Shoreditch, circa 1596.

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In recent years it has been the least frequently produced of all Shakespeare’s history plays, and it is the last of the ten to be performed by Shakespeare’s Globe, which comes as a surprise given the great potential of many of its roles.

Ciarán Owens plays the Dauphin Louis as an ambitious lad, compulsively tidying his hair beneath his crown and happy to put up with a wife if that is the cost of land and authority.

Barbara Marten, having recently played an aloof, almost submissive, Gertrude opposite Maxine Peake’s Hamlet (Manchester Royal Exchange) is imperious as John’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine.

As French Queen Constance, Tanya Moodie also makes the most of a challenging female role, from assertively protecting her child’s birthright to shaking the Cathedral with a primal scream of rage at the injustice that has been done to him.

With the exception of Stone-Fewings, every actor plays more than one role, creating some effective doublings. For example, soprano Aruhan Galieva makes her professional theatre debut as sullen Blanche of Castile, married against her will to secure England’s peace.

Abandoned on her wedding night, she sings a haunting melody of loss as her husband prepares for war with her country. Then a few scenes later, as the prophetess foretelling John’s downfall, she is almost unrecognisable but for her singing voice sending a shiver through the audience.

For me, the production’s most moving moment is when Hubert, the French nobleman who is so struck by French Prince Arthur’s purity and innocence that he cannot assassinate him, happens upon the prince’s broken body.

The Bastard is lamenting at length about “the thorns and dangers of this world”, but all I can focus on is Hubert going proudly, boldly up the stage’s steps with the dead prince’s body in his arms and tears on his face.

In a play so focussed on politics and dominion, this act of love unmotivated by any personal gain resonates more powerfully than all the cries of war.

An intrepid crew of London-based Shakespeareans have just made theatrical history with the first cue script performance at Bankside’s Rose Playhouse since 1606. Lizzie Conrad Hughes of the salon: collective explains how they did it

Akilah Dale as Phoebe, Ricardo Freitas as Silvius

Akilah Dale as Phoebe, Ricardo Freitas as Silvius

We call it Shakespeare: Direct. Why the name? Because working from cue script parts in the style of Early Modern players – the first modern actors – means that you are directed directly through the text by the play’s writer, just as his own players were – so you are in direct contact with Shakespeare.

Cue script work means you prepare your part, your costume, and your character, but you do not know who else is in your scene, what they will say, or do, or how that will affect you, until you both meet on stage before an audience. And it is not enough to stand on stage and just speak – you have to deliver a performance. And you have to listen like your life depends on it not to miss your cue.

Ricardo Freitas as Hubert, Paula Parducz as Prince Arthur

Ricardo Freitas as Hubert, Paula Parducz as Prince Arthur

It has been said that cue script acting puts you right in the heart of the moment, but at no time are you in control of it – it’s a bit like juggling fire. This fire juggling makes the work very alive and gives us a glimpse of what performances may have been like back in Shakespeare’s day, with vibrantly alive actors hanging on each other’s every word.

Plus, sometimes an actor will receive a cue more than once – in other words, Shakespeare set up his actors to attempt to interrupt each other, which also helped to keep the action on stage fresh and exciting.

Anna Hawkes as Lady Percy

Anna Hawkes as Lady Percy

The moment I discovered The Rose Playhouse in May 2014, hidden under an office building beside Southwark Bridge, I knew what I had to do. The Rose is the site of Philip Henslowe’s playhouse, home to the Admiral’s Men, and site of Will Shakespeare’s own apprenticeship as player and playwright. It’s two minutes’ walk from Shakespeare’s Globe on the Bankside of the Thames, but it’s The Real Thing. And it’s very cold and they have no plumbing, as it’s a theatre in an archaeological site.

I’d been experimenting with First Folio text-based cue script acting for a few months, encouraged by my husband and fellow Shakespeare geek Dewi Hughes, and a growing group of fellow actors. We were gradually unearthing the acting secrets buried in the text by their writer/director and previously excavated by cue script pioneer Patrick Tucker. I’d read his book, Secrets of Acting Shakespeare, and been wildly inspired to try it out.

Lawrence Carmichael looking over the remains of The Rose

Lawrence Carmichael looking over the remains of The Rose

The work was embryonic still, but fascinating and ridiculously addictive. Finding The Rose, the spiritual home of cue script acting, it seemed tailor-made – all we had to do was bring the two things together.

On Sunday 29 March 2015 we performed at The Rose before an invited audience. There were 20 of us – 12 who knew what they were in for, and eight cue script novices who had no idea. We normally work in the studios at The Cockpit in Marylebone, so the echoing cavern and enigmatic great lake that covers The Rose meant a real change of pace.

Lizzie Conrad Hughes as Cleopatra

Lizzie Conrad Hughes as Cleopatra

We presented ten scenes from plays ranging from King John to As You Like It. Each scene begins and ends with a bell rung by the Book-holder – the prompter, who sits in the audience. Prompting was built into the process of the playhouses – their audiences knew they were watching a play and had no problem when a prompt was required. Nor did ours on Sunday. One audience member commented that it made her feel a part of the creative process, as the scene was created before her eyes.

Kim Hardy as Hotspur, Lawrence Carmichael as Northumberland

Kim Hardy as Hotspur, Lawrence Carmichael as Northumberland

Everyone taking part in this work did an all-day class to learn all the hidden secrets of the First Folio and get a feeling for being directed by the text. Then they received their part (around 40 lines and associated cues), which they had to study for text clues before their first one hour session with their ‘Verse Nurser’.

At this point we make sure they have any necessary info about their character and the story so far in the play, and check that they understand all their words and are on track with their study. They then get off book before session two, which is more about the physical performance, including potential movement in the scene.

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We have historical precedent for this – and besides, it makes practical theatrical sense! ‘VN’ and line learning takes three weeks. On performance day, we had a practical session of entrances and exits, changes in costume, and any physical business. Again, there is precedent for this – it’s about the only kind of practical preparation there was before a performance in Shakespeare’s day.

Dominic Kelly as Worcester

Dominic Kelly as Worcester

The actual acting passes in a haze of mental and emotional fire that is almost impossible to describe. Kim Hardy, who’s done the work once before, commented: “It was a tremendous experience all round. The buzz was thrilling playing at The Rose.” John Kelley, on his first go, said: “A unique, emotional, unforgettable experience where I felt utterly supported and inspired by my fellow players.”

Everyone who’s tried it agrees: it’s addictive. It changes how you work with other actors, how you treat text, and how you feel about William Shakespeare: player, playwright, director, poet, genius, and best friend to the modern actor.

The company perform their closing jig

The company perform their closing jig

Anyone looking for more information on the salon: collective and Shakespeare: Direct (and the chance to join the next round), check out their details on The Cockpit’s website.

All images by Camilla Greenwell