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.