So it was natural that the city’s prestigious arts festival should snap up the chance of a visit from the Shakespeare’s Globe company performing King John for the occasion.
One of the bard’s least known and most infrequently performed plays, it is the story of the fickle and uncertain king’s claim to the throne. Now John is best known for Magna Carta, the first “bill of rights” enacted by an English monarch, and still reflected in many of our current laws.
But in his day, he fought the constant question of the legitimacy of his position, as he took over the crown from his oldest brother, Richard Coeur de Lion, in place of his late elder brother Geoffrey’s son, the prince Arthur. Rumours that he arranged for the murder of the boy were rife throughout the kingdom.
Shakespeare’s play deals with this issue, whirling its audience from England to France, from the Court to the battlefield, ending with John’s death from poison, perhaps administered by a monk.
It is a colourful but complicated play, three hours of family machinations, Papal intervention and lust for power.
For this production, directed by James Dacre with powerfully atmospheric music composed by Orlando Gough and choreography by Scott Ambler (the first Prince in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake), the Cathedral was transformed. A cruciform stage was set up in the nave and transepts, ceiling curtains hung to add scope and dull the notorious echo, drums and percussion set at the sides and the whole building sometimes ringing with the volume of both voices and sounds.
These difficult characters came to vivid life in the hands of the company, from Laurence Belcher’s earnest Arthur to Jo Stone-Fewings’ mercurial and scheming John, from Alex Waldmann’s teasingly bellicose Fauconbridge to Joseph Marcell’s oily Cardinal Pandulph.
Barbara Marten plays the arch scheming mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine with the magnificent Tanya Moodie filling the cathedral with her anger as Constance, widow of Geoffrey.
Mark Meadows, who three years ago played Dean Jocelin of Salisbury in The Spire at the Playhouse, returned to the building as Hubert, in a horrifying and heart-rending scene with the young prince.
Forget fears that this is an incomprehensible and boring work. In this vibrant production it is anything but.
After its Salisbury run, it goes to the Globe for a month of performances from 1st June. It will be interesting to see how it is reset for the Globe’s acting space.