This series of reviews will look at ‘Globe to Globe’ productions, an extraordinary effort by London’s Globe Theatre to stage every Shakespeare play in a foreign language.
The Globe to Globe festival is in full flow and even the more obscure texts receive the foreign language workout. This production of King John, in Armenian, is professional and atmospheric, a strong interpretation of a little performed text. We’ve mentioned the scarcity of Johns being performed, but this year there have been two other productions in London alone, and there is something to be said for going into a production only knowing the basic storyline and so appreciating the performance as fresh.
The Yerevan State Academic Theatre company has steadily built up their profile in Europe, and King John is their biggest production internationally to date. They can be proud of what they have achieved, albeit with frustrations. Director Tigran Gasparyan stages an atmospheric, accessible production, with great acting and some good ideas; however, the text is edited at too many crucial points.
Armenia is on the border of east and west, and it has influences from many cultures. It was part of both the Roman and Persian empires, before coming under the influence of the Ottomans, until finally gaining independence as a nation after the fall of the USSR. It has a strong literary tradition, and Shakespeare is revered there, his themes resonating with many Armenian tales. The language is beautiful to hear, and is similar to Greek, however it has considerable Russian and Arabic influences. It is a big stretch to claim King John is a perfect representation of the Armenian story, but the issues of invasion and a clash of cultures does resonate quite well with Amenians (according to the Ambassador whom I spoke to at the interval).
Throughout the production, the sense of diaspora comes through heavily. The play opens with each actor in turn bringing out various battered trunks and well-worn suitcases, seemingly weary of long journeys. In fact, everything about the production is deliberately rustic and slightly battered; it is a folky production, at some times comic, at others very dark and with hints of magic and sorcery.
Music is played through much of the show by a small percussion band and clarinet dictating the pace of the performances as well as letting the non-Armenians in the audience know the mood of a particular scene. Following the story is refreshingly easy as the actors put as much energy and focus into their expressions and movement as they do in their scripts.
Armen Marutyan is a loud and boisterous John, and it is easy to see how highly the character thinks of himself. Marutyan's delivery is brilliant and has authority. Alla Vardanyan is a fantastic Constance, and through her brilliant depiction of someone slipping into madness the audience can see her grief. Her makeup is haunting, and she looks like a witch by the end of the production, grasping some dead flowers, shaking back and forth. The other key woman in the play, Eleanor (Nelly Kheranvan) is depicted as a crazy old woman. With a bald wig and veil, she again looks haunting, but overacting makes for a slightly offensive characterisation.
Due to cast and language limitations, the play is cut, but cut far too much, and many key scenes are removed or edited beyond recognition. The famous scene in which John and Phillip besiege a town is warped down into a few minutes, and the finale scene where John hands the crown over to his son is cut too much. The play ends with John dying alone, delivering a series of monologues. This is done to create a powerful ending with the title character’s dying off, leaving an uncertain world, and is maybe an attempt to leave the question mark open over Armenia’s future, but as an artistic choice, it leaves the production itself incomplete.