The Life and Death of King John
The Eleventh Hour @ Queen’s Theatre
8:00pm, Tue 2 Mar 2010
There’s an odd collection of people waiting outside Queen’s Theatre when I arrive; the prim-and-proper elderly Friends of the Festival, resplendent in their theatre-going best, milled uncomfortably with the younger crowd, then squeezed uncomfortably into the hard plastic seats on the temporary scaffolding of the theatre. Just as I walk in, I bump into Guy Masterson spruiking for his shows at Higher Ground; “they’re more for this audience,” he said, gesticulating toward the Friends, “because it’s quality theatre. They just don’t know about it; they don’t want to take the risk,” he lamented.
He pointedly reminded me that I hadn’t yet seen any of his shows – a shameful oversight, I was forced to admit – and then I wandered into Queen’s.
Now – I love Queen’s Theatre. It’s a fantastically coarse space that sets my imagination alight; almost any production benefits from its wonderful ambience. And, in the case of The Life and Death of King John, the staging is brilliantly done; the rough-hewn walls of the Theatre are used to frame the barn in which the play-within-a-play pans out.
Set in the hours before the Armistice that ended the First World War, we’re privy to a small group of soldiers taking shelter from hostilities in a barn. To help distract their Captain from his injuries, they perform his favourite play – Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John – improvising costumes and making concessions to the script as they go. It’s a somewhat contrived conceit, but forgivable; it allows The Eleventh Hour to juxtapose the relationships within the factions of WWI against The Bard’s work.
Shakespeare’s work carries on as the noise of war surrounds the soldiers, and Acts are interspersed with characters emotional outbursts – sparring with each other in the tension of their situation, desperately trying to contact their command, or fussing over the Captain. As the play comes to a close, so does the War, leading to a wonderfully poignant exeunt.
Rarely performed in Australia, King John suffered significant cuts due to the lack of actors afforded by the meta-play; but, given the length of the original (and the fact that this production still weighed in at nearly three hours), that was fair enough. The performances are all great – though Michaela Cantwell’s accent proved both endearing and annoying – but the real standout here is the direction of Anne Thompson; the performance feels wonderfully self-aware and confident, and ends at just the right time in just the right way.
Two quality Shakespeares in the same year? bloody brilliant, I reckon.