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

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.

Professor Michael Dobson
Director of the Shakespeare Institute; Professor of Shakespeare Studies
Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon