Journey around the Globe

| July 20, 2015

King John Magna  Carta.

William Shakespeare’s “Tragedy of King John” is indeed surrounded by enough anniversaries and landmarks to  fill weeks of radio air time, endless TV dramatizations, and a myriad of   historical analyses. In no particular order, the play marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. Speaking in November 2014 the Artistic Director of the Shakespeare’s Globe, Dominic Dromgoole saw the production as the final piece of Shakespeare’s 38 plays. The play had never  been performed at the famous Shakespeare’s Globe, until now, and its staging would be the final piece of the jig-saw.

A proud Joseph Marcell at the Globe Theatre

A proud Joseph Marcell at the Globe Theatre

There is also the Magna Carta exhibition at the British Library, generating interest from beyond these shores. Board members of the Shakespeare Globe were invited to a special preview. The exhibition opened in March and runs till September 2015.

Although rarely performed, the importance of the play and its significance to Modern Parliamentary Democracy cannot be ignored, or understated.  Scholars of British History would remind us that in  sealing the Magna Carta in 1215, King John was forced to listen to the barons, noblemen and Clergy of the day. The forum for discussion would evolve into the British Parliament which commenced in  1236.  However the forerunner to the modern House of Commons was set up in 1265 by Simon de Montfort, the nobleman who led the rebellion against King Henry III. The English Parliament became the Parliament of Great Britain in 1707 upon the union of England and Wales with Scotland.

A few years ago at a dinner in La Rochell in the south of France I was asked to sit next to a minor French diplomat. He had served in London but somehow could hardly find anything worth mentioning about his stay in England. In an attempt at playing the role of a good guest, I told him that the English had the French to thank for naming one of their greatest institutions, The Parliament. He perked up. Well it was the French raised, French Speaking English King Edward III when confronted by the English Barons would introduce and throw the word  ‘Parler’ at them, from which Parliament is derived.  It was an intention to talk and discuss, it’s not derived from a word meaning to legislate or decide. From ‘Parler’ we got Parliament.

“And what has the English given us in return ?” He sneered. “ Ah I don’t know, how about Le T-Shirt and Le Weekend.  Two things the French can’t seem to do without.” He looked at me and broke into laughter. Who said the French don’t have a sense of humour..?

It would take centuries before the ideals of Magna Carta would become reality, not before the passing of the First Reform Act, correctly named The Parliamentary Reform Act (England) 1832. The Act would bring into existence the first registration of voters, distribution of Seats, and the Voting Franchise. The concept and practice of the Rotten Boroughs and unfair voting behaviour would also be addressed.

“The Tragedy of King John” by Williams Shakespeare.

The synopsis notes in the Globe’s programme, booklet, of “King John,” says that the King had to surrender the English throne to his young nephew, Arthur, or face war. The King addresses the two Faulconbridge brothers regarding a disputed inheritance. The elder is revealed as the illegitimate son of the previous king, Richard I. He (the Bastard) gives up the inheritance in return for a Knighthood.

Like in Shakespeare’s other plays, there are numerous sub plots. The French King Philip threatens to assault the English-controlled town of Angiers unless the inhabitants support Arthur. King John and his retinue arrive. The two Kings, along with John’s mother Elenor and Arthur’s mother Constance, exchange claims of lineage and insult before appealing to the townspeople to open the gates to the rightful king. The citizens refuse both sides until the dispute is resolved. The Bastard suggest the two armies unite and sack Angiers. The alarmed citizens suggest a marriage between John’s niece, Lady Blanche and the French Dauphin. Constance rages that her son has been betrayed.

This version is a co-production between Shakespeare’s Globe and Royal and Demgate Northampton.

Director James Dacre’s production is a full on, scintillating, two hour tour de force, combining text, music and dance. Composer Orlando Gough and Choreographer Scott Amber play more than a supporting role, as their work punctuate the play into timely events, and by driving the play along, in a more accessible way. Some of Amber’s choreography gives more than a passing nod to elements of physical theatre.  Singer Aruhan Galieva making her professional theatre debut commands special mention for her clear and expressive vocal range.  The production has a strong ensemble feel, and the actors all play multiple roles.  “As King John Jo Stowe- Fewings gives a finely balanced performance of the less than heroic King”.

His character and performance is neither hero nor villain. His ambiguous moral status is perhaps summed up in his regret before he learns that a murder has been committed, later to be told that is not the case.

After all, regret and compassion are not building materials for English Kingship.

Audience at the Globe Theatre

Audience at the Globe Theatre

Joseph Marcell plays the roles of Cardinal Pandulph, Chatillon and a monk, with great dignity. His Cardinal is as you would expect. Full of his own authority, he is sly, Machiavellian and persuasive, with flashes of spiritual guidance and heavenly manners.

Chatillion is a nobleman of France, sent as an ambassador by King Philip to King John, to challenge his right to the throne.

Alex Waldmann as the bastard walked a tight rope of almost scene stealing and delivering comical moments and wit, in the most entertaining way.  Although referred to as ‘the bastard’ he is actually the child of King Richard the Lion Heart. Alex is certainly an actor to watch.

The assembled musicians play percussion, Clarinet, bass Clarinet, Soprano Saxophone and a multiple of wind instruments on stage.  (As opposed to sitting in an orchestra pit) The set up certainly helped define the direction of the story narrative. Interestingly although the play celebrates on the coming into being of the Magna Carta the words are mentioned only once in the play.  And the play is certainly not about the historic document. The play has its share of jaw dropping moments, like the horrifying sight of a murder being committed by a monk.

The reviews in the British press have been more than positive. From The Daily Express ‘This is just not a great production but a major theatrical event.’

From The Stage:  ‘A must see production’

Shakespeare’s Globe historians indicate that the play was probably written in or about 1596. Shakespeare would go on to write most of his hits after that period.  The language is also less complicated than some of his future work. In many ways it acts as a template of character development in his later works and signs of the things to come from the Bard.


The Globe Experience:

Situated on the Bank of the River Thames, the Globe offers more than you would expect, apart from the opportunity to see some of the world’s finest actors. For five British pounds, anyone can stand centre stage and see some of the most often told stories in drama. Also on the same site is The Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, is a 340 seater candle lit smaller space. Derek Walcott’s Omeros was staged here between May and June of 2014.

There’s also exhibitions, virtual tours, Library and Archives, the Globe Theatre tour, the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse tour, education programme, not forgetting the annual Special Projects, and an opportunity to meet the Actors.

I was invited to one such session on the day I reviewed King John. Moderator and Chair, Paul Shuter led Joseph Marcell and Alex Waldmann who played the Bastard to a packed lecture studio. On the short walk from the Bar area to the studio where the workshop would be held, a shaven head man in his fifties rushed Marcell, can you sign this for me please. After producing his King John programme, he offered the one he bought for Omeros. As we walked away he said one more, now it was time for King Lear to be signed. A hat trick of signatures in one day, I could not resist. ”So when can I see these on e-bay. ?”  If only looks could kill, “not likely mate not bloody likely, I am keeping these,” and for emphasis, as if I was not reading his script he stressed: “for ever”.

Assembled for the Meet the Actors session were pre-bought ticket holders, some who had just seen the production, students, academics, tourists and a few wise heads, all gathered for a face to face with two almost breathless actors. Both thespians seemed happy to lend time for to the endeavour with zeal and enthusiasm.

Joseph Marcell Paul Shuter Alex Wankmann, meet the actors workshop Globe Theatre. July 2015.

Joseph Marcell Paul Shuter Alex Wankmann, meet the actors workshop Globe Theatre. July 2015.

The first thing that caught the imagination of the audience was the sentiments expressed by both,  that although “ King John” was a rarely performed play, they had previous association with the text. Hence they were able to give their own personal insights to many of the questions and the information seemed to be getting more interesting with each answer given.

Here’s a small sample of questions fired at the actors, to Joseph Marcell “How did you get the role?” Reply “You always return to the market place. In this instance I read the play with all its complexities, then I was asked to audition and I did, and now I am sitting here”. Much jollity and laughter. From a teenager with wiser head “How do you approach a challenging situation and did any occur in this play” Joseph Marcell “You should have as many challenges as  possible, I act, but I don’t dance, I don’t sing but I did the triple in this one, I danced and I sang,….. and acted of course”. More laughter.

Joseph Marcell posing beneath a framed portrait of himself as King Lear at the Globe Theatre

Joseph Marcell posing beneath a framed portrait of himself as King Lear at the Globe Theatre

The production also toured the Salisbury Cathedral, the Temple in the City and the Holy Sepulchre St Steps in Northampton.  When asked to explain the experience of doing the same play in entirely different locations Alex Waldmann had this insight “ It is a different show in each place. At the cathedral the entrance was a 20 metres walk but it seems like five miles. The play bends to the location. The smell of incense created a religious reverence, you had to wait longer to get a laugh, it’s as if the audience were waiting for divine intervention from above for permission to laugh”  He observed that in Salisbury Cathedral, where the audience were very close, a different challenge presented itself.

Waldmann noted that the actors dressed as monks, with choreographed movements worked much better in the church settings but the slow motion fighting pieces just didn’t feel right for many reasons (in the Churches). They felt naff, in his words.  As the session drew to a close Marcell was asked for his final thoughts “It’s not an easy play and it has only two dramatic scenes, it does not contain a memorable soliloquy like other plays, in some ways it’s a play about political expediency, it’s a good template for some of Shakespeare’s future work. We expect Kings to be heroic, but John in the play is not, but I do feel it’s a good play” A final question was asked about his approach to his roles. To which he replied “You present the play as it is written, people will hear things for the first time, and they react, moving on within the politics of rehearsal, it’s a process of negotiation with your director, you defend your character, and a different argument arises and you both find where you are, which ends up, that…you’re on the same page, same song, same key”

As the session ended it felt that we were just getting warm, the skeleton of the play and process had been exposed. We had just seen the living walking, talking, body, but the main frame work was equally interesting and informative, punctuated with laughter to boot direct from actors.


Shakespeare’s Globe:

The project to rebuild Shakespeare’s Globe was the brain child of the American actor, director and producer Sam Wanamaker. Sam famously played Iago to Paul Robeson’s “Othello” in the 1950s at Stratford upon Avon. In the same production would be future Theatre royalty Vanessa Redgrave and Diana Rigg, in minor roles.  Film fans would remember him as the baddie, Luigi Patrovita in the 1980 Arnold Schwarzenger film “Raw Deal”. Later in 1987 he appeared as David Warfield in “Superman 1V: The Quest for Peace.” He is certainly legendary in theatre folk lore, for his dogged tenancy, unclouded foresight with determination and drive.

In my one and only encounter with the Great man I found him to be very helpful and forthcoming with his time. I was a young Local Government Authority Arts Officer who had been given (by the Greater London Council) the job to produce a Memorial Concert, an exhibition and a film tribute to Paul Robeson. All three events were to be staged at the Queen Elisabeth and Royal Festival Halls on London’s South bank. The year 1984. I contacted as many of Paul Robeson’s former acting colleagues as possible. Dame Peggy Ashcroft had just won best supporting actor for her role in David Lean’s, ‘A passage to India’. She agreed. Elisabeth Welch was in semi retirement but still working. She also agreed to take part. My chosen master of Ceremony was Joseph Marcell.

The Cast and management of King Lear: Hewanorra airport. Saint Lucia August 2013.

The Cast and management of King Lear: Hewanorra airport. Saint Lucia August 2013.

Sam Wanamaker wrote back saying that due to filming commitments overseas, he would not be in London hence unable to attend, but gave his blessings.  On the day of the concert, as the show was about to start I noticed a few empty seats.  Some thirty minutes later one of those empty seats had been occupied by none other than Mr. Wannamaker. He had flow from Hollywood in the middle of filming in order to attend.  Totally unplanned I announced his presence to the audience and asked if he wanted to say a few words.  He stood up and gave a glowing resume about his friend Paul Robeson.   You don’t forget those moments.

Shakespeare’s Globe was opened in 1997, embracing the ethos and ideals of Early English Theatre. Built on the site of the original Globe where a young man from Warwickshire started his career as a playwright.  In the words of Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole “It is difficult for people to remember that English theatre used to be about touring and nothing else. Touring was in Shakespeare’s blood and in the blood of the company of actors he worked with. They had toured before they formed a company at the Globe, and they continued to do so after they were established.” That mantra would see the Globe visiting St. Lucia in 2013 with Joseph Marcell performing in the title role of King Lear.

Three evening performances were staged, two in the South of the island, in the fishing village of Dennery and the final sold out show at Gaiety in the North:  Prime Minister Kenny Anthony, Governor General Dame Pearle Louisy, Derek Walcott and his best friend the late Sir Dunstan St. Omer, along with the capacity audience were enthralled with the Globe’s presentation. The actors themselves felt that this was the most warmly received performance of the whole tour.  For Joseph Marcell this was a home coming. (See photo of the cast at Hewanorra airport.) The Head of the St. Lucia High Commission Office to the United Kingdom, and the Cultural Development Foundation on the island, would assist greatly with the execution of the endeavour.

Executive Producer Tom Bird never wavered in his determination to ensure that the production would be staged on Walcott’s island.  He arrived early on Fair Helen for pre-production work on “ Lear”, and soon he was cycling daily from his Bay Garden Hotel room to Pigeon Point. He also fell deeply in love with one of the Pitons, not Petit Piton or grande Piton, the island’s National heritage listed twin peaks, but the local Piton beer. Reliable sources told me it was a serious romance. The two seemed inseparable.

JD Douglas and Joseph Marcell at Derek Walcott's residence in Saint Lucia - August 2013

JD Douglas and Joseph Marcell at Derek Walcott’s residence in Saint Lucia – August 2013

In his bag he carried a well worn almost battered copy of Derek’s Walcotts’ Omeros which he showed me over a drink. A conversation ensued about the work and then he said “Can you speak to Derek and see if he would like the Globe to do something with this…I really would Junior”  Would I? Hell yes!

The day after the final show, I met Mr. Walcott at his residence, in attendance were Joseph Marcell and King Lear’s Director Bill Buckhurst.  To use one of the most over rated phrases of all time…’ the rest as they say is history’.  In 2014 Omeros opened at the Lakeside Theatre at Essex University and played to pack houses at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse at the Globe. Derek, his beautiful wife Sigrid and daughter all made the journey to England for the historic occasion.  Many St. Lucians attended and Walcott seemed pleased. Unity the Association of St. Lucians in London, held a reception for the Cast and Chairman’s Reserve flowed that night. Every ipad around seemed to be over worked.

King Lear in St. Lucia can be seen as the beginning of the Globe touring in the Caribbean. Followed by  Hamlet in 2014. Due to King Lear’s success around the world, it was revised for the 2014-2015 season in selected markets. The production was also nominated for four Helen Hayes Awards, at the Lincoln Centre, including best production and best actor.

Note book in hand I took the underground with Mr. Marcell at London Bridge Station. As we sat deep in conversation, a young tourist and her mother approached. The young lady went straight to Joseph ‘excuse me are you that person on the telly….you know in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air?

Yes I am’ came the reply. Where are you from I asked ?  “Brazil” came the reply. I was intrigued.  “You are from Brazil and you know about this man? “  She gave me that look that the young tend to give adults when they feel  the adult is not always up to speed.  “Every body in Brazil watches the Fresh Prince.” What is there left to say, from Shakespeare’s England, via St. Lucia, Bel Air, Brazil, this was certainly a journey around the Globe, in more ways than one.

Thank you for the guided tour, Mr. Marcell. Written by. JD Douglas July 2015.

JD Douglas and Joseph Marcell.

JD Douglas and Joseph Marcell.

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