Clare Brennan's article appeared in the Guardian, 5/4.)
Director James Dacre flamboyantly follows old precedents in exploiting Shakespeare’s early history play for its potential effects. He splices the text with excerpts from its source material, inserts processions and dumb shows (as well as a topical, although non-authentic, reference to Magna Carta) and clothes everyone in splendid period costumes (Jonathan Fensom’s design). Sounds match sights: the air in the candlelit, pillared nave of this medieval church shimmers, shakes and trembles to the ecclesiastical choral chants, solo melodies, martial percussion and atmosphere-shivering horns of Orlando Gough’s music (“Like an opera!” was one interval exclamation).
Scenes sweep along the four arms of a cruciform-shaped playing area. Dacre uses the form cleverly to position oppositions (King John v papal envoy; King John v King of France; King John’s mother, Eleanor, v Constance, mother of Arthur, the child claimant to John’s throne; King John v nobles) and to highlight the seesawing shifts in alliances (as erstwhile opponents literally change sides). Characters are as clearly outlined as stained-glass images (especially, Barbara Marten’s Eleanor and Giles Terera’s Austria).