King John – Smock Alley – Review
Review by Frank L.
King John by William Shakespeare produced by Purple Door
Some say King John is the least performed Shakespearean play. It is set in the 13th Century when King John ruled England. The plot is complex with entitlement to the throne, illegitimacy, war with France and in France and a variety of sub plots all having an airing. In addition, a central part of the play is the relationship between King John and the Vatican. Obviously directors over the years, given the rarity of its production, must have been challenged as to the viability of the play being performed before a contemporary audience. To address the challenges of the play and give it a contemporary edge, Purple Door has relocated the story to “the middle of Thatcher’s Britain amid the miner’s [sic] strike”. Such a relocation inevitably represents a challenge. There are additional challenges created in the text when the King of France appears as the King of America. Given this level of alteration, the story line is exceedingly difficult to follow.
For a young cast, one of the challenges that Shakespeare presents is the requirement, with clear diction, to project audibly the text. Each word requires enunciation. Sadly too many of the cast, particularly those in the minor roles did not entirely surmount this challenge. In one instance, the task was made more difficult by the cast member having to speak through a megaphone which distorted almost entirely the sound emanating. On the other hand, Lady Constance’s soliloquy was rendered beautifully.
The casting is gender blind which is not a problem in itself, but such casting is likely to make it more difficult for a member of the audience to follow the story line as it goes through its many twists and turns. In this regard it was difficult to grasp how the world of the miners’ strike fitted into the text.
The play lasted two and a half hours with a fifteen minute interval. Purple Door undoubtedly showed ambition to stage King John and for that they are to be congratulated. Perhaps Shakespeare’s text needs editing in order to make it accessible for a contemporary audience. In any event on the night this reviewer attended the audience was smaller at the end of the performance than at the beginning and the applause was polite.