King John (Temple Church, London)

‘In our own election year, ”King John” has plenty to say, to put it mildly’

In the 800th anniversary year of Magna Carta, Shakespeare's Globe, in association with Royal & Derngate, Northampton, is presenting this intriguing Shakespeare chronicle play that mentions almost everything about King John except the Magna Carta.

Never mind, as Phil Willmott's feisty little revival at the Union three years amply demonstrated, this is a riveting political play in which the monarch contends with France and the claims to the throne of Prince Arthur (he has the lad tortured with hot irons); with the papal nuncio and the Catholic Church; and with the rebellious barons on his own doorstep.

Director James Dacre has taken the show on the road to the magnificent candlelit medieval Temple Church – full of soaring arches, stone effigies and stained glass windows – off the Strand in London, prior to performances at the Holy Sepulchre in Northampton, Salisbury Cathedral and (in June) the great Globe itself.

I had a poor pew in Temple to experience the raised cruciform/ traverse staging in the nave, but not too poor to marvel at Orlando Gough's wonderful music, or to appreciate the rich and intelligently inflected performances of RSC leading men Jo Stone-Fewings and Alex Waldmann as the King and the Bastard Faulconbridge, the latter delivering the famous UKIP speech at the end ("This England never did, not never shall, lie at the proud foot of a conqueror but when it first did help to wound itself").

Joseph Marcell as Cardinal Pandulph
Joseph Marcell as Cardinal Pandulph

Stone-Fewings has a wonderful way of making King John sound mad and reasonable at the same time, and Waldman, too, transforms the character's villainy into comic and appealing complexity. Then there is Tanya Moodie as Arthur's mother, Constance, charged with some of Shakespeare's finest verse – the whole play is in verse, unusually; no prose knockabout at all – including her sorrowful "Grief fills the room up of my absent child."

This is the play, too, where we hear of gilding the lily and excommunication by bell, book and candle, and where the young pretender leaps to his death ("the wall is high") after Hubert's great torture scene, and where the victim tries to talk down his murderer and create a moral vacuum of duty and conspiracy. Arthur's ten years old, but played by a much older, though still boy-like, Laurence Belcher, who sings Gough's soprano/falsetto farewell exquisitely.

Barbara Marten has a quality of steel filament as Eleanor of Aquitaine, and there are notable, well-spoken contributions from Joseph Marcell as the Pope's emissary, Pandulph, Simon Coates as a formidable Philip of France and Giles Terera as an unlikely Archduke of Austria.

Belcher's Arthur the enemy returns as the new king, Henry III, grandson of Richard the Lionheart; the line will wriggle its way down to the Tudors and Shakespeare's audience who, when they first saw this patriotic play, were still celebrating Drake's victory over the Spanish Armada. In our own election year, King John has plenty to say, to put it mildly. It's a classic of political tactics and skulduggery and will, I'm sure, come into proper focus at the Globe.

King John is at the Royal & Derngate Northampton from 24 April to 16 May, before visiting Shakespeare's Globe from 1 to 27 June