King John, The Globe, 17 May 2012
When Dominic Dromgoole was interviewed about the Globe to Globe festival in 2011, he said that an Armenian King John would be “a show to test a marketing department.”
The packed theatre for the evening performance, with even the upper galleries teeming with spectators, was evidence that the Globe marketing department had passed that particular test.
The cast and musicians entered individually with suitcases of various sizes. The generous audience, with a large Armenian contingent supporting their compatriots on stage, applauded each entry.
The company assembled on the stage with their luggage as if gathered on a railway concourse. The actor playing the King (Armen Marutyan) put on a leather crown and other characters donned ruffs and other items of clothing.
The King asked the messenger Chatillion to pick up the text of the play and read his part from it. He responded hesitantly as if assuming the role for the first time. We gradually slipped into the world of the play as Chatillion brought the French king’s demand that John give up the throne in favour of Arthur.
John’s mother Eleanor was played by a young actress (Nelly Kheranyan) as a very old lady with a black dress and veil, and comedy was derived from the King having to hoist her on top of a large upended trunk.
When the matter of Phillip the Bastard’s (Tigran Nersisyan) inheritance was resolved, with the illegitimate son giving all to his legitimate brother, the King knighted him with a big sword. From that point on Phillip wore a piece of armour on his shoulder.
King Phillip of France (Aram Hovhannisyan) tried to assure Constance (Alla Vardanyan) about her son Arthur’s (Gnel Ulikhanyan) claim to the English crown. But we could see from Arthur’s drinking that he was not a worthy candidate.
King John and his party arrived in France, appearing on the balcony. As the insults began to fly between the two sides, the argument became personalised between the two mothers. The cacophony of harsh words was accentuated by the musicians playing drones.
At first Eleanor tried to climb over the edge of the balcony to get at Constance. Once all were down on the main stage, the two flew at each other and had to be held back. Other supporters of each candidate also ran forward at their opponents and were similarly restrained. Once sat down, Eleanor’s veil was lifted so that she could poke her tongue out at the French.
The dispute over the throne was put to the people of Angiers, and a Citizen appeared on the balcony to hear both sides of the argument. King John took out his leather crown to remind them who was king. But the townspeople could not decide who was the legitimate ruler.
The English and French picked up their suitcases and squared up for battle. The comic Eleanor stood in the middle like a referee, holding them back until she gave the word. The two armies ran with suitcases held before them and crashed into each other while shouting.
There was no clear winner, and both sides prepared to attack the city as punishment for its indecision. But Hubert (Albert Safaryan) suggested that the King’s niece Blanche (Liana Arestakyan) should marry the French Dauphin (Davit Gasparyan) to settle the dispute. Blanche, a pretty, petite woman in an elegant grey dress, sashayed out of the centre doors like a model and sat on a trunk.
As the offer was considered, Eleanor used her walking stick to slowly raise the hem of Blanche’s dress and moved one of the woman’s legs to cross the other, all in an attempt to make her more alluring.
The match was agreed and everyone danced to celebrate the wedding. But Constance, whose son Arthur was disadvantaged by this arrangement, watched unhappily from the balcony.
Phillip the Bastard also objected to this sordid deal. His soliloquy on the subject was applauded halfway through by an Armenian groundling. He replied, saying “thanks” in English, and carried on.
This and other soliloquies and long speeches in the production were very pleasing to listen to despite the language barrier. The rhythm and pacing of the words conveyed the underlying feeling. It was clear that the actors were relishing the beauty of the language they were using and non-Armenian speakers were able to sense this.
Cardinal Pandulph (Armen Margaryan) was decidedly creepy and bore a striking resemblance to the late Donald Pleasence. He ascended a platform made of suitcases to inquire about John’s refusal to accept the appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. The short, gruff John set out his case in a long speech downstage.
The Cardinal excommunicated him and tried to persuade the French King that the truce instigated by the dynastic marriage was now void.
Suitcases were arranged to form a narrow doorway through which Pandulph and King Phillip stepped to converse in private downstage. The Cardinal suggested the King break the truce by sliding a small suitcase with his foot over to Phillip, who refused by sliding it back again. But he finally accepted.
Blanche tried to stop the Dauphin from going to war by straddling him, her words of persuasion spoken in the ecstasies of lovemaking as she writhed up and down. The rest of the cast watched this performance and clapped metatheatrically at the end.
The battle preparations began with the English moving downstage holding hands in a line while the French did the same upstage. English turned to face the French and the two lines ran at each still holding hands. The interval came after this first clash of the two lines.
After the interval, the battle was restarted from the beginning. The two armies ran at each other again. The French defeat was symbolised by a dead soldier lying at the edge of the stage with his necking hanging down into the yard.
Arthur was taken prisoner and John plotted to have him murdered to secure his position. For this he needed the assistance of Hubert.
John built a throne out of suitcases and invited Hubert sit on it. John implored him to kill Arthur, clasping him round the ankles before kneeling in supplication. However, once Hubert agreed, John brushed Hubert abruptly off the throne. This underlined the mercenary nature of the King’s dealings.
Constance entered with her hair down cradling a suitcase in her arms. She placed it carefully on the ground and revealed it to be full of flowers. She spoke in soliloquy, not dialogue, lamenting the capture of her son.
All this time Pandulph stood at the back of the stage watching her. He came forward after she had left, in order to convince the Dauphin to kill Arthur. He was softly spoken and sly, almost to the point of being comic.
Hubert set about his murderous task and began to strangle Arthur. But he could not kill the boy with his bare hands. He placed a handkerchief on an upended suitcase to create an impromptu execution block, forced Arthur’s neck down onto it and fetched a big sword.
Despite his extensive preparations, Hubert gave up completely. Arthur had been pleading for his life, and continued to do so a long time after Hubert left, so that his plaintive cries were made to an empty stage.
King John re-established his rule over his realm and sat on his throne. He was greeted by several nobles in white outfits and ruffs, who were unhappy with the King’s conduct. As they spoke to him, Hubert whispered the false news that he had killed Arthur in the King’s ear.
The King launched into a display of patently insincere sorrow. He rolled around on the ground, but found time to check one of his boots in the middle of his performance, indicating the artificiality of the emotions he appeared to express. Believing the news to be true, the nobles left in disgust.
The prophecies against the King reached his ear. His general insecurity caused him to vent his anger against Hubert, who pleaded with the King in the same position that the King had pleaded with him when recruiting Hubert as Arthur’s murderer.
The King panicked and hid in a large trunk until Hubert admitted that he had spared Arthur’s life, upon which the King emerged and celebrated by pinching Hubert affectionately. He joyfully repeated that Arthur was alive.
Meanwhile Arthur was still in fear for his life. He tried to escape by piling up suitcases to reach the balcony but fell to ground. His dead body was immediately discovered by the others and taken in.
Having made peace with the church, King John’s re-coronation by Pandulph was given a comic touch. The Cardinal held the crown over the kneeling King, while John attempted to rise from the ground and slot his head into its circle. The Cardinal offered John his ring to kiss, but John looked at the proffered hand and shook it instead.
The temporary peace was shattered when news came that Arthur was indeed dead and that a French army was approaching.
Much of the remainder of act five was cut, so that the action moved straight to the King’s increasing sickness and mad ramblings.
Phillip announced that his troops had been wiped out and king collapsed and died.
The performance ended with Hubert taking the crown from the dead king’s head as the cast re-entered in their street clothes with their suitcases just as they had done right at the beginning.
The new king turned to the messenger and said the first word of the production “Chatillion…” as whole story appeared to begin again.
This clever ending, with its implication that history repeats itself, was just part of the production’s overall focus on the character of King John. The final battle and the machinations of characters around him, such as the Duke of Austria, Lady Faulconbridge and Melun, were entirely cut.
As a result, we dwelt on the King’s predicaments and struggles, but ultimately felt for him despite his questionable methods because he had become an endearing figure. This sympathy for John was due to the sturdiness and warmth of the central performance from Armen Marutyan.