Immersive theatre is all the rage. Some of it is unnecessary window dressing that detracts from the drama being performed while other productions make it so integral to the story that you wonder why more productions don’t experiment with the genre.
In their first co-production Northants’s Royal & Derngate and the Globe Theatre have decamped to a 12th century church in the heart of Northampton where the real life characters in Shakespeare’s King John actually worshipped.
R&D artistic director James Dacre has pulled off a triumphant piece of story-telling by staging one of the Bard’s lesser known histories in the Holy Sepulchre.
The building reeks of atmosphere and authenticity although it is unlikely to have seen so much bloody violence in its history.
The audience enters past the body of King Richard (the Lionheart), where it is being given full pomp and requiem by the clergy, before they take their places in the pews.
What unfolds is 140-minutes of thrilling plotting and counter plotting as a weak and indecisive King John struggles to hold onto the English throne amid power plays from France and demands from the Catholic Church.
And the audience is very much a part of it. One man sat in stunned silence (until nudged by his wife) when personally addressed by Alex Waldmann’s war-mongering firebrand Richard Faulconbridge.
Fighting scenes are played out with ferocious intensity, and faultless choreography, within a few feet of the theatrical congregation (with swords being whirled frighteningly close to the front row).
And I know it’s not always a consideration, but, sitting in the front pews, I couldn’t help but marvel at the costumes. You don’t normally get a chance to see them close up and they really are stunning, particularly Tanya Moodie’s impressive gown.
King John sweeps up the aisle resplendent in a robe of red velvet but his coronation is interrupted by a messenger from France who claims (quite fairly, I thought) that Arthur, son of John’s older brother Geoffrey, is rightful heir.
Jo-Stone Fewing’s engrossing turn as John, gives us with a multi-layered and very human monarch who relies too much on his mother, Eleanor of Aquitane, and lives in the shadow of his predecessor’s achievements.
John tries to be a war-lord, statesman and leader, but never quite pulls it off. He defies The Pope but then capitulates.
Shakespeare‘s kings are, almost universally, great heroes, which is what the public theatre-goers of the day expected (just think of the Henrys).
John is an anathema, cursed by both the church and a half-blind seer, he’s indecisive, lacks leadership skills and credibility and often relies on the ill-advice of others.
He loses, with incredible ease, the loyalty of his nobles and countrymen. It’s no wonder the Magna Carta (given short shrift in this production) was drawn up to rein in some of the monarchy’s power and make Britain more democratic.
Shakespeare opens the play with the two warring Faulconbridge brothers from Northampton (see the connection?) fighting over their father’s inheritance.
Later the same row is played out among kings with mystified townsfolk willing to follow their rightful king – if only someone can tell them which one it is.
King John has always had a bad press (forever the evil lord in countless Robin Hood stories) and it’s clear that the playwright isn’t sure how to present him, in the end leaving it open to interpretation.
There aren’t many quotable lines but the production is enhanced by the addition of some superb music and songs.
Waldmann excels as the hot-headed bastard heir who acts as narrator and rabble-rouser. When not talking to the audience, he blasts John with rhetoric in a hopeless attempt to give the king some backbone.
He whips up resentment among the nobles and conspires to make war – all with one ambition, starkly revealed, when he tries out the throne of England for size.
At the heart of King John are two tiger mothers fighting for their sons. Barbara Marten, as Eleanor, appears at one point in battledress, such is her passion and commitment to John.
But all eyes are on Tanya Moodie’s incendiary performance as Arthur’s mother, Constance. Driven to insanity by injustice and the wrong done to her family her portrayal is both compelling and heartfelt.
There’s superb support from the beautifully spoken Joseph Marcell as the Pope’s legate, Cardinal Pandulph, Simon Coates as King Philip of France, Ciarán Owens, as the Dauphin, and Daniel Rabin as Salisbury.
This is a must see production but remember to wrap up as it’s bitterly cold in the candlelit church.
Running at the Holy Sepulchre Church until May 16. It plays at The Globe from June 1-27