The Latin for apricot, says the very informative Armenian gentleman sitting beside me, is prunus armenicus (Aremnian plum). He’s telling me this because the Globe has been filled with the sound of the duduk, an instrument traditionally made from the wood of an apricot tree, as the Sundukyan Theatre’s production of King John gets off to an exuberant start.
It may have been written by Shakespeare as a tragedy, but tonight’s performance, directed by Tigran Gasparyan, tends to focus more on comedy. The play opens as characters laugh and joke noisily, while musicians play Armenian folk. Actors enter carrying large old-fashioned trunks (and one or two wheely suitcases) – an apt recognition, perhaps, of the large proportion of tonight’s audience, who have at some point made the journey from Armenia to settle in the UK. At different points in the play these trunks are thrown around the stage, used as thrones, battlefield barricades, a hiding place for the King, and even as the characters’ emotional baggage.
King John himself is portrayed as a boisterous, larger-than-life and at times clown-like figure by Armen Marutyan, who often pulls a leather crown from his pocket, tossing it into the air before placing it firmly on to his head to assert his right to the throne. Tigran Nersisyan’s Bastard cuts a dashing, charismatic figure, and is by far the most earnest of the cast (though even he can’t resist joking with the audience from time to time), while Arthur, the young French prince who has to plead for his life, is introduced as a lackadaisical drunk. The snide cardinal Pandolph is yet another figure of fun, whose stiff movements and camp manner have the audience chuckling from his first appearance.
It is the female characters, though, who provide show-stealing performances. Nelly Kheranyan is superb as the wizened, bald, stick-wielding hag Queen Eleanor, whose spider-like movements around the stage seem to genuinely terrify her fellow cast members. She and Constance, played by Alla Vardanyan, have to be physically restrained by the men, as they face off in defence of their sons in a scene which veers towards slapstick, with the King bending over to slap his own bottom at Constance, and Louis catapulted into a forward somersault as he tries to hold his mother back. Even the clarinet player gets in on the act, providing humorous sound effects.
Lady Blanche (Liana Arestakyan), designated a floozie from the off with her bright red tights, delivers what you could say was the climax of the show when, devastated at the thought of her new husband Louis going off to war, she attempts to shag him into submission. This performance, once it comes to a head, even earns her a standing ovation from the cast (whether those audience members with very young children felt quite the same way is another question).
The second half sees some enjoyable comic interaction between Hubert, the simple fool, and King John. Skipping a few bits of the story from acts four and five, John’s sudden death is witnessed only by Hubert, who immediately takes the king’s leather coat and crown for himself – a fitting ending to a performance which saw the comedy in tragedy at every turn.