The Canterbury Shakespeare Festival came to town with a new play, Magna Carta. Named after the seminal 1215 charter upon which the play focuses on, this newly written play draws Shakespeare’s 1623 play ‘The Life and Death of King John’ that famously omitted the famous charter.
Historians argue that Shakespeare, writing for the Tudor court, removed the charter as it tolerated popular revolt. King John’s defeat by the barons’ during the First Barons War (1215-1217) was viewed as a dangerous message for the Elizabethan aristocracy and was censored. It is this gap that the new Magna Carta play attempts to fill, offering a brief view of John’s mind as he is coerced to sign his autocratic powers away.
Understanding these facts is crucial when understanding the Magna Carta play, but very little of this information was conveyed. Besides a brief recognition of the source material in the introduction, the audience was left unaware. Although not damning, this oversight made it harder to understand. Without this context, the play felt like a tribute and not an original creation.
The performance took place in the Ebury Hotel, an Edwardian mansion whose false towers and crenellations made an apt setting for the medieval recreation. It would have been better if they had kept the show in the ‘Parrot’ pub in town, where the Tudor building would have naturally recreated the scene.
They attempted to make up for the setting with the props and scenery. It did little to recreate the 13th-century setting. Several standing white cloth banners surrounded a central desk, covered in names such as ‘John Adams’ and ‘Oliver Cromwell’. The director told us these names linked to important charters signed throughout history, but one must wonder why they chose names so far removed from the context of the play. It would have been more significant if they had used the names of the barons, many of which were introduced throughout the play.
The performance itself was carried by Ciaran Barata-Hynes who played the aggressive and conflicted King John. On stage for the full duration of the play, Barata-Hynes was convincing and energetic in his role, continuously being the most interesting character.
As for the secondary characters, played by Charlotte Groombridge (Fitzwalter), Rosie Earle (Queen Isabella) and Harry Buckner (Des Roches) appeared bored, seeming to only recite lines rather than act them; their characters had no defining characteristics. They lacked facial reactions and movement when conversing which led to the scenes appearing flat and stale. For a play with an extensive historical background and heavy themes, the secondary characters needed to be more animated to capture the audience’s attention and stand out against Barata-Hynes.
Yet, a scene-stealing performance came from Ben Holiday (Daubeny), who in the last ten minutes managed to revitalise the audience’s interest. He passionately played his role, expressing in speech and movement the intensity of the scene; forming a character that the audience could invest in.
However, it was the disappointing, bland, and forgettable performances by Sarah Lockyer (Archbishop of Canterbury) and Alex Rose (Peasant) whose depiction of their characters failed to leave an impact. Despite being the narrators, they failed to convey the story interestingly and often left the audience confused with their sudden intrusions.
Ultimately, the absence of energy and the lack of historical context left the play feeling one-note. It was difficult for the audience to invest in the story unless they had previous background knowledge. It resulted in boredom. Not worth discussing.
Images courtesy of CantsShakeFest/Twitter, Visit Canterbury and Studio Holder