King John, or My Big Fat Armenian Wedding.
So far in this feast of a festival, the most satisfying thing to witness is one of these foreign companies use their own culture, music, dress, and point of view to make a Shakespeare play completely their own, then illuminate this unique prism in performance to reveal the absolute unique essence of the play, as clear as any revelation, to an audience who may or may not have any idea what is being said. I have seen this now several times in the Globe-to-Globe Festival at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, but hadn’t yet with such a bizarre and obscure title as the tragicomic early history play, King John.
For anyone who knows this play (and loves it as I do, having performed in it three different times…), the text can present itself as variously absurd, bewildering, cynical, or just plain strange. I see King John as an absurdist polemic attacking the infallibility of royalty, the purity of the Holy See, and perhaps also the divine right of autocratic kings. But wait, how in the world could Shakespeare have gotten away with criticizing so many touchy bugaboos and keeping his own head? 1) By using as his fall guy the famously unpopular King John (one of the weakest and most near sighted kings in the history of England), turning him into nothing short of a shallow comic buffoon we’ll have a hard time taking seriously, and 2) elevating the fictional Philip the Bastard to royalty, both in manner and in blood, to redeem the mystique of the royal blood line. We should also consider that the rule of King John (1199-1216), was most memorably marked by his forced signing of the Magna Carta (which Shakespeare leaves out of his play) and the creation of Parliament the year before he died (poisoned by a monk, which was too juicy for Shakespeare to excise). Thus, King John’s mistakes were the beginning of the end for entirely autocratic rule in England, and thus we have enough distance to criticize a man slipped up without a representative body to protect the people. In addition, let’s not forget Shakespeare’s time was dotted with extreme cynicism with respect to the perceived decadence and power of Catholicism, allowing Shakespeare to poke fun at a fictional papal legate in the form of the slippery Pandulph.
But though these are all large data points for world history, Shakespeare’s treatment of them mines the minutiae of the English psyche. His absurdist treatment of King John only has value against the rich consciousness of religion and monarchy on the sceptered isle. So it was incredibly gratifying and genuinely surprising to see this Armenian company not only manifest a thoroughly internalized understanding of the history and Shakespeare’s treatment of it, but simultaneously present the piece as both a distinctively Armenian and demonstrably universal cautionary tale.
As with the other Globe-to-Globe performances I’ve seen, the audience was filled to the rafters with members of the performing company’s London diaspora. I heard Armenian being spoke all around me which was a great thrill. There was a palpable buzz of excitement as the performance was about to begin. Finally, each actor enters one at a time with a mix of modern and period looking suitcases. The audience applauds at each entrance. As the actors join the stage with more and more luggage, it’s obvious they’re enacting a sort of scene you’d see at the airport with a large group: everyone has just found their bag and rolled it out to the street to wait for a taxi. Some are on the phone, others are chatting. Some are bickering, but everyone’s active. Sort of like the extended family that’s just arrived for a wedding.
Three musicians have appeared with the actors, and their begin to play. One plays the davul (two sided Armenian drum) and two play clarinets or Zuzuk’s depending on the moment. But suddenly everything stops, the King steps forward and in Armenian declares “Now say, Chatillion, what would France with us?” Suddenly the other actors are scrambling for an Elizabethan ruff to put on Chatillion. This was a bit funny as they figured out who it was should play him – obviously a bit planned beforehand but executed with perfect clowning presence. The play essentially takes off just like that and stays in that domain. The suitcases, which stay scattered throughout the stage, become absolutely everything else in the world – weapons included, as the tale unfolds.
Let’s spend just an additional second on what this meant. The suitcases variously become a throne, the high wall that Arthur falls off of, many different chairs, secret passageways, hiding places, walls, and doors. These were the same suitcases the company used to travel in. So, in essence, the Gabriel Sundukyan National Academic Theatre was using their luggage as their set. What a thrill to see that crazy and brilliant idea actually work so successfully, so creatively, and so absurdly.
The ensemble hangs about onstage for this whole first scene. They cut Lady Faulconbridge as well as Robert, Philip the Bastard’s brother. I would have loved to see the cut of this first scene, retranslated back into English. For all we have is Chatillion’s entrance followed by Philip, with just John and Eleanor of Aquitane ogling over his obvious likeness to Richard I, Coeur de Lion.
The actress who plays Queen Eleanor, John’s mother, was one of my favorites of the whole festival. She emerges hunched over in old age, with a tope veil covering her face, something like a bald wig on underneath, groaning and moaning her way about the stage in an incredibly amusing bit of character clowning. Occasionally she would lurch to and fro, mumbling with displeasure at the proceedings which would cause action to momentarily stop and the audience to chuckle, but by far the most amusing aspect of her character was her pull on John. She would emerge with a line of text, tire herself and John, and John would then pick her up and plop her back onto the top of one of the higher trunks that was set up onstage. Stay – there! She’d grumble and the play would continue. Occasionally this one-armed manoeuvre would take several painful tries, which to me made it all the more amusing.
The Bastard was a hulk of a man – big as a barn door – dark in complexion and with an impermeable stare. Relishing his time on the Globe stage, he took several opportunities to pause for a good 8-10 seconds before speaking, almost as if he wanted to hold the whole wooden O at the tip of his tongue. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I gave it to him. The stillness the followed and the focus the pauses produced was remarkable. Though it must be said, part of this was due to the gentility of the sympathetic Armenian audience. This was a generous crowd and just about anything would be fair game. He wore a long dark coat with an armored right shoulder, and cut an imposing and weighty presence in the space. The role was cut down significantly, but the actor certainly made up for it with sheer physical presence, stillness, and power.
It was an interesting choice to see Arthur, a full-grown man however thin, wiry, and airy, as an alcoholic pretty boy. He just didn’t seem to give a shit, which I thought was rather a refreshing choice, though I did worry that it wouldn’t pan out in the end when his accidental death becomes the main motive for pathos in the play. I was delightfully surprised – the best scenes in the play by far were Hubert and John’s followed by Hubert and Arthur’s. Central to this dark twist in King John was the vital and multifaceted performance of Hubert, who came across as the most accessible and vulnerable of all the play’s characters.
The John/Hubert scene, usually placed just before intermission, was a moment of triumph for this King John. John’s throne is built entirely of trunks and suitcases, and in a bit of physical clowning, John offers Hubert a chance to climb its steps and sit atop the world. Hubert does so with childish relish. Once seated in utter glee, John kneels to him, strokes his foot, and plays the beggar. Then he tells him to get off and gets down to business. I noticed no direct translation of the famous 5-way shared line “Death. My Lord?. A grave. He shall not live. Enough,” but we could all tell the unspeakable had been asked. Hubert is utterly horrified – not stunned, but mortified with emotion at the request. I was surprised at the extent to which this allowed all of us to feel deeply the atrocity that had been asked. This is not a culture that can’t recognize an atrocity when they see one. On the contrary, the Armenian genocide and its surprising and tragic absence in common culture has no doubt made a lasting sensitivity for centuries of Armenians to come around injustice, murder of innocents, and the abuse of power. This scene turned on these big ticket items, making it all the more meaningful for Hubert, our representative onstage in this instance, to react fully to the truth of the horror instead of be numbed by it – a choice preferred by the directors of all three Johns I’ve performed in as well as the other one production I’ve seen.
I found myself vitally moved by this scene – its clowning, its turns, it vulnerability, its anguish, and perhaps most importantly, its palpable truth and honesty in both the desperate request the the mortified response.
As for the eye-poking scene to follow, the request to poke Arthur’s eyes out with hot iron apparently was cut from this translation. Indeed, the scene played out very differently than in Shakespeare’s original. There was no naive foreplay where the innocent and completely delightful Arthur flatters Hubert whose heart is sinking like a stone. Instead the scene begins with a bang: Hubert’s very entrance signals to the adult Arthur what is to come. The sword comes out. The screams begin. Hubert tries to turn his emotions off, setting up a suitcase as a chopping block. Arthur begs for his life. The head goes on the suitcase – Arthur is crying and screaming through it. It was absolute, real-time, real-stakes, un-poetic horror. I’ve certainly never imagined the scene like that. Suddenly Hubert JUST CAN’T DO IT. He is human after all. He releases him.
Other than these moments, there were many others of note in this incredibly thoughtful adaptation. One though that I will never forget, probably as it was such a surprising deviation from Shakespeare’s original, was between Blanche of Spain and Louise of France. They’ve been betrothed to be married and all seems to be well. But Pandulph the papal legate has already ruined the good vibes by claiming that King John is an heretic for refusing to follow the Pope in his appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury. As it goes, anyone who’s a friend to John must also be an heretic as well. So King Phllip of France cuts off ties and we’re suddenly back to war. But Blance corners Louise downstage center, and begging him not to make war against her uncle John, straddles him. Here begins the unforgettable moment. Lord knows what text she was speaking (Blanche doesn’t say so much in the original), but she proceeds to ride him – all the up to and including orgasm – while convincing him to stay with her and not to make way. Louise – so interestingly – was stiff as a board with his head pointed away from her, while she looked up to the heavens, kept riding, and just plain stopped the forward motion of this play with her incredible act. At the end of the climax – with the whole Globe flush-faced and dead silent, suddenly the actors who’ve all been standing upstage watching, begin to applaud! And we in the audience then take their cue to applaud (I thought this was the intermission, naturally). But no, the play continued, and it slowly became obvious that the actors onstage were merely applauding a job well done!
The actress playing Constance was great – obviously impassioned, clearly very skilled. I wish I could have understood the adapted text as it’s some of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching in all Shakespeare, but alas… And the actor playing Pandulph the papal legate accomplished more with greasily fingering his prayer beads than any superb moustache twirling ever could. His mix of comic instincts while playing off the audience and the other actors made a full meal out of this character, and definitively played up this Catholic ambassador as a mere transparent heap Machiavellian machinations. The portrayal would surely have pleased 17th century London.
It was great to see an older actor play King John, fabulous to see a consistent approach to this often inconsistent play, and eye-opening to get an authentically Armenian take on the story.
At times the wind players would perfectly demonstrate circular breathing playing this loud reedy outdoor instruments. One such moment was the double coronation where John crowns himself again (thereby ‘gilding the lily’ as Salisbury says, which is the origin of this phrase). The interminable loud tones of the Zuzuk’s really drove this point home.