The Holy Sepulchre Church in Northampton has been transformed back to its 12th Century roots to stage a unique, multi-sensory performance of Shakespeare’s King John.
Audience members are instantly transported back 800 years as they walk into the candlelit, incense-smelling chapel where hooded monks are mourning the death of Richard III.
Seats are arranged either side of a long, thin stage that runs through the middle of the church and the performers also use the length of a small intersection in the centre of the building.
At one end lies the much-fought-over throne for the King, at the other, a set of double doors where actors can arrive and depart.
Sitting in the front row, you are close enough to be brushed by the king’s cloak as he thunders past or be startled by the thud of a sword into the ground close to your feet during a battle scene.
Due to the unusual stage design and seat positions, spectating has the feel of a tennis match with the head swivelling from side to side to keep up with the action.
In the first half, the actions zips along at a lively pace as King John travels to France to secure his crown and fight off the threat from his young nephew Arthur.
For such a large venue, director James Dacre has maintained a tight grip of the acoustic level, aided by actors who pitch their lines at the right volume to be heard by the whole audience.
The use of a beating drum is particularly effective during the first battle scene in France with groups of actors swaying to a faint, steady rhythm at the side of the stage as other performers continue their dialogue to the audience.
Despite portraying a notoriously ‘bad’ monarch who ordered the execution of his own nephew, Jo Stone-Fewings’ depiction of King John’s paranoid and impulsive nature evokes sympathy as it becomes clear how difficult it is for him to bear responsibility for a whole country,
Perhaps the stand-out performance is by Alex Waldmann, who revels in his role as The Bastard who provides a sardonic commentary on some of the ill-advised decisions of his contemporaries.
Taking advantage of how close the seats are to the stage, Waldmann playfully keeps the audience in the palm of his hand with tricks such as directing his lines towards a “fair maiden” in the front row or shaking a man’s hand during a soliloquy.
Tanya Moodie also catches the attention as the passionate, grief-stricken, mother of Arthur who rages at swift changes of allegiance among the powerful men around her.
Costume supervisor Laura Rushton must also be given a lot of credit for clothing the actors in styles that looked realistic from a short distance. In particular, due to a typically British aversion to looking cast members directly in the eye, I often found myself looking at their authentically designed leather slippers.
With a total running time of two hours and 20 minutes, including a first half that lasts 90 minutes, the play only fails to maintain the attention for a brief period before the interval.
King John is an expertly acted production that brings one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays to life but, more importantly, it is a special assault on the ears, nose and eyes.
Watching such a captivating performance in a church that is believed to have been visited by King John when he was alive, creates the feeling of being a time traveller.
The phrase ‘bringing history to life’ has rarely been so apt to describe a theatre production.
King John is being performed at Holy Sepulchre Church until May 16. Tickets cost £10 To book go to Royal andDerngatewebsite