Year of Shakespeare: King John at the Globe

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


King John, Gabriel Sundukyan, National  Academic Theatre (Armenia),  dir. Tigran Gasparyan, May 16 2012 at The Globe, London

By Michael Dobson, Shakespeare Institute

To start with a confession: I did not arrange to review this production because I have special knowledge of Armenia, its language or its theatre. I arranged to review it because a friend of mine once played Constance for the RSC, and I had planned to take her along and ask her what she made of it. In the event, though, she had to be out of the country during this production’s 2-day spell at the Globe, and I was left to savour it without the benefit of an ex-Constance as well as without the benefit of knowing much about its cultural context.

Beyond, that is, what everybody knows: that the boundaries of Armenianness and the boundaries of Armenia have never corresponded very comfortably;  that terrible genocides and mass emigrations took place when the diverse Ottoman empire was forcibly reshaped into the less diverse Turkish nation-state; that Iran and Azerbaijan haven’t always been very comfortable neighbours to have either; and that, as with other nations emerging from provincehood, Armenia early sought to add prestige and international status to its native language and drama by translating and cherishing Shakespeare.  Other than that, I had only the surtitles to rely on (which provided only a scene-by-scene summary of the action, unfortunately not compiled from the cut and transposed text which this production used), and a cast list, and the vigour and eloquence of the show itself.

The less one knows about a country, of course, the more anxious one is when one finds oneself clinging to it.  Were the trunks and suitcases brought onto the stage by the 13-strong troupe, as they arrived on stage out of character one by one, gestures towards the Armenian diaspora experience, or just symptoms of the pragmatism required by small touring companies everywhere?  (Ingeniously piled and shifted about, they made a perfectly serviceable set, in any case, and quite good weapons too).  Did the rustic-looking costumes – mainly of fawn cotton, with added notes of russet and brick red, and for the king a brown leather coat and matching leather crown – signify a conscious allegiance to the folk traditions of the Caucasus, or is that just how modern dress looks anyway if you are Armenian?

For a small but attentive matinee audience, all this did and didn’t matter.  Two reed players and a percussionist, onstage most of the time, explained the mood of successive scenes (their range including some wonderfully shrill discords for the battles), and there was never likely to be any problem in following the narrative.  Whatever other misfortunes have happened to Armenia, method-acting does not seem to have been among them: Armen Marutyan was a big, loud, tragicomic Ubu-esque King John, Alla Vardanyan an operatic Constance (her grief for her abducted son a fine set-piece mad scene, complete with a suitcase full of flowers), Nelly Kheranyan an unfunnily caricatured old battleaxe of an Eleanor, complete with walking stick and rubber bald wig.  As the Bastard, Tigran Nersisyan lacked ironic comedy (and the cuts robbed him of both his half-brother and Austria as stooges), but he made up for it in sheer bass-baritone attack.

The cuts also mandated a finale in which John started dying of the poison, alone, as soon as he had sent the Bastard away to renew the struggle against the French, and in which his leather coat was ultimately stolen and donned by Hubert . Despite what the surtitles claimed, nothing was said about England to itself remaining true.  Whether there was nonetheless a subtext about Armenia and its diaspora remaining true to themselves, alas, I have yet to find out.

What do you think of this interpretation of Shakespeare? Please add your thoughts to the discussion thread below!


To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

Want to watch this production online? Click on the image below to watch it for free at THE SPACE:

Listen below to an interview with one of the actors, recorded by the Globe Education Department:


Look below to find out what others are saying about this performance:

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Author:Michael Dobson

Michael Dobson is Director of the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham. He is the author of several books on Shakespeare's cultural and theatrical legacy, including The Making of the National Poet (1992), Performing Shakespeare's Tragedies Today (2006), and Shakespeare and Amateur Performance (2011).
  • Ioana

    I was on performance it’s really, really bad theatre…

  • Anna

    it’s very bad performance…

  • Georgie Lucas

    I was left confused and a bit disappointed with this
    production, and have two small points to add to the discussion. I agree with
    the assessment of Eleanor: her characterisation was not funny! But, I also felt
    that the problem with her state of desiccation was that although she became a
    weird blend of spectre and fish-wife, at no point did I get the impression that
    she was a “soldier and now bound for France”.

    Similarly, I found the casting, and characterisation, of
    Arthur quite bemusing. I asked after the performance, and apparently festival guidelines
    don’t preclude the casting of children – as would certainly make more sense
    logistically – so I was left wondering what the justification for the adult
    Arthur was. Arthur is in many ways the lynchpin to King John’s action: years shy of his majority, the main conflict is
    advanced in his name; his eye-gauging at Hubert’s hands is averted by his persuasively
    “innocent prate”; and his long drop to death, the result of
    a disastrous miscalculation that the “good ground” would “be
    pitiful and hurt [him] not!”. In this production, Gnel Ulikhanyan’s
    wine-swilling Arthur was as dissolute as his manners were disengaging: he was
    not worth the coil that was made for him.

  • Annie Martirosyan

    Since I have not seen the play I cannot confirm how much Armenianness it bore nor can interpret the production from a native’s viewpoint. But I should note that the costumes are not modern Armenian clothes at all – we dress like Europeans or Americans etc.

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