Theatre: King John; Stop - the Play

By Evans, Lloyd | The Spectator, June 13, 2015 | Go to article overview

Theatre: King John; Stop - the Play


Evans, Lloyd, The Spectator


King John

Globe Theatre, in rep until 27 June

Stop -- The Play

Trafalgar Studio, until 27 June

King John arrives at the Globe bent double under the weight of garlands from the London critics. Their jaunt up to Northampton for the première seems to have cast an opiate glaze over their faculties. Plays that are rarely revived earn their hermit status for a reason. They lack social skills or winning graces. They're hard to get on with. Shakespeare launches his account of the bad king's 'troublesome raigne' by exploring the shadowy crenellations of Plantagenet genealogy. A decent cast performing at full whack to an eager crowd couldn't keep my brain engaged. After 70 minutes, the folds of my eyes were feeling as heavy as piano lids.

Then, a sensation. A scene of extraordinary force and daring. The kings of England and France seal a peace treaty with a formal embrace. Freeze frame. Enter a papal nuncio. He excommunicates England and orders France to break the clinch and declare war on England or face the same penalty: banishment from heaven's mercy. Amazing stuff. What would you do? What will France do? The French king begs Rome to reconsider but when his plea fails he betrays England, declares war and earns stinging reproofs from his new-won foe. A great scene. It's not alone. Constance (played by Tanya Moodie) delivers a skin-prickling lament over her dead son. Quite a hankie-drencher. And there are moments when Shakespeare's bitter lyricism mounts to a high pitch. 'Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale/ Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man.' That could be Hamlet .

The finest moment is a torture scene which foreshadows Lear and which modern audiences will find enthralling because, being honest, very few of us have read the play and know what happens next. Hubert decides to blind young Arthur. Two masked thugs stand ready to perform the surgery. 'Heat me these irons hot.' In walks Arthur. He's nice to Hubert. How are you? Keeping well? Feeling tired? Fancy a rest? Simplicity is the key here. Hubert's kindness contrasts so naturally and yet so horribly with Hubert's gruesome plan. Then Arthur discovers the conspiracy. He's trussed to a chair. He pleads for clemency. This being Shakespeare, we expect maximum violence, maximum suffering. And the master delivers but not in the way we anticipated. …

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