Thursday, 11 March 2010


Queens Theatre
Queen's Theatre Adelaide

While visiting Adelaide, I was fortunate to see a production of Shakespeare's The Life and Death of King John by The Eleventh Hour. The Eleventh Hour is a theatre company from Fitzroy in Melbourne.

I suppose I had heard of King John, but when I found that it was on in Adelaide during my visit, I couldn't bring anything about it to mind. The King John of history and myth was lost to my memory as well, and I had to remind myself of Magna Carta, Runnymede and the adventures of Robin Hood (none of which are in Shakespeare).

It's said that performances of King John are rare these days, although the play was popular in the nineteenth century when pageantry, and elaborate scenery and costume were more in evidence. It gave scope for all of these. It may also be that King John loomed larger in the imagination of people at that time; historians of the period treated him as the personification of evil. William Stubbs, professor of modern history at Oxford, described the him as not only as " the very worst of our kings" but also "polluted with every crime" and "false to every obligation". Still under this influence, A.A. Milne taught us that " King John was not a good man-..." I suspect that for the 19th century actor John was what Richard III became in the hands of Laurence Olivier. If you look at the old silent film of Beerbohm Tree performing the death of King John, which was shown in the foyer in Adelaide, you get some sense of this I think.

For those interested, there is a debate about the source of Shakespeare's play and whether it followed in time, and drew upon, the anonymous play The Troublesome Reign of King John or whether Shakespeare came first. Whatever the answer to this, the play is not very coherent, it conflates some incidents from history and jumps forward in time without explaining that it is doing so. King John reigned from 1199 to 1216. The first four acts of the play are chiefly concerned with John's dispute about the inheritance of the Crown with Arthur, Duke of Brittany; or more accurately since Arthur (born 1187) was a youth at the time, with his supporters. This dispute ended when Arthur vanished mysteriously in April 1203 ( in the play he falls, or jumps, from a wall after John's unsuccessful attempt to murder or blind him.) Then the last act depicts the events leading up to John's death in 1216. There is no sub-plot or elaboration, just the rather tortured narrative and countless battles. But a reading of the play does give a feeling of Shakespeare, the working dramatist of great linguistic facility, working against time to get the thing ready and onto the stage.

Stories about the inheritance of royal power were relevant to the politics and events of Shakespeare's time, but are not of pressing concern now.

The Eleventh Hour has tackled the plays difficulties by setting its production in France on the last day of the First World War. It's not simply a production in modern dress. The company, ( I assume its dramaturge William Henderson ) has written a play set on that day in the course of which Shakespeare's King John is performed.


The performance took place in Queen's Theatre in Playhouse Lane, Adelaide. The name suggests a delightful old traditional theatre, but that's not what I found. Although there has been a theatre on the site since 1841, the building, or what remains of it has had a variety of uses over time. The word BAZAAR in faded paint is the only name on the facade. At some stage it was "horse bazaar", I assume a kind of market. All that lies behind the facade is a large space. This is currently used for functions or as a performance space, each user adapting it to their own needs.

A large room to the side was used as a foyer and Shakespeare Tavern; and when it was time for the play to begin the audience was led from there to a side door of the theatre proper, offered paper Chinese fans against the heat, and shown to a steeply raked temporary grandstand structure which held just over a hundred seats. The bank of seats faced back towards the building's facade.

The space between the seats and the front of the theatre was converted to an elaborate set, depicting a barn near the trenches of 1918. To imagine the set, you must forget the usual kind of stage design. The old building was converted into the barn: spaces in the existing wall had been built up and accurately matched with existing structure to show shell damaged walls. Old carts, wheels, barrels and boxes were placed realistically around the "barn" and straw littered the floor. There is a sound design which reproduces the sound of nearby artillery, aircraft and exploding shells and bombs.

The play begins with the entry of a group of soldiers blinded by gas wearing eye bandages, together with three women, two ambulance drivers and an army nurse. The group has sought shelter in the barn, and are soon joined by a badly wounded officer and a chaplain.

This sets the scene for a theatrical device which if simply described sounds contrived and wholly incredible, but which, surprisingly, led to a fascinating and absorbing performance. The nurse, Matron White, suggests to the group that to keep the Captain's spirits up, they should perform the play they have been rehearsing - King John, of course. The Captain is King John. It could be that soldiers at the front in the First World War did some playacting to pass the time, I don't know; but did a group of walking wounded ever learn King John? However, once we take this jump, the strengths of the idea begin to work.

I am totally sick of the convention of placing historical plays and operas in modern times, and the variation of equipping ancient warriors with sub machine guns, with the purpose of teaching those of us lacking the insight and virtue of the Director that war is and was evil and destructive. The improbable device used here managed to skirt a didactic onslaught and instead provided some real insights and emotional force.

The idea drew on some parallels with the plot of King John. As a map in the foyer reminded us, the trenches in France were close to where the action of Shakespeare's play took place. And the futility of that war seems close when Lewis, the dauphin says of a battle:

And now 'tis far too huge to be blown out
with that same weak wind which kindled it.

The gas blinded soldiers give an edge to Shakespeare's very effective scene in which Hubert, acting as the king's henchman, prepares to blind the youthful Arthur with hot irons. In a performance in which all the actors were excellent, Michaela Cantwell (alias Lieutenant Violet O'Faolain, Ambulance Driver) gave a most affecting performance as the troubled and vacillating Hubert. The idea of Hubert being performed by a woman was another bit of the mysterious alchemy which gave this show such emotional force.

Shakespeare's play was interrupted from time to time by episodes in the story of soldiers who were performing it. This did two things. First, it provided another parallel with the old play by showing the stresses which work on wounded and war weary soldiers to produce tension and acrimonious exchanges. But more importantly it gave an impetus to the production which would be difficult to achieve from the text of King John itself. The performance of King John became the driving force of the soldiers' existence: when things got too hard to bear there was always THE PLAY. It became more important to them than issues of life and death, injury, pain and distress.

My only reservation about the performances was that the soldiers developed more identifiable personalities than some of Shakespeare's characters. This might be a fault in King John itself, though I imagine it might be overcome if various of the disputing nobles were given very distinctive costumes. Here they were all in regulation army issue.

One of the ambulance drivers had set up a field telephone which relayed messages from Marshall Foch and General Haig about the armistice to take place at the eleventh hour that day. This also provided some drive to the proceedings; and it was no surprise when the church bells celebrating the end of hostilities accompanied Richard's concluding speech:

This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
...Nought shall make us rue
If England to itself do rest but true.

King John has died, one line of the play explaining that he was poisoned by a monk. This has some point, as during the play John has anticipated Henry VIII by seizing the wealth of the monasteries to finance his battles. No one knows why John died, but I prefer Holinshed's story that his death followed "increased feeding on rawe peaches, and drinking of new sider". No sooner has the Captain delivered John's final lines than he himself falls off the cart on which he rested, dead. I don't want to quibble with such a fascinating production, but this was not difficult to predict.

Queens Theatre

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Charles Bell Birch in Adelaide

Queen Victoria

This statue of Queen Victoria is in Victoria Square Adelaide.  I have now added particulars of the statue to my page on Charles Bell Birch, the sculptor.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Robert Burns in Adelaide

The bard
I never intended to make a catologue of memorials to Robert Burns, but since I was visiting Adelaide and since the statue there is found in The World's Memorials of Robert Burns by Edward Goodwillie late of Michigan, I decided to take a look. ( The italicised passages below are taken from Goodwillie's book. )
The second statue of Robert Burns to be erected
in Australia was unveiled on May 5th., 1894, at
Adelaide, the Queen City and Capital of the federated
State of South Australia.
The location of this statue is one of the finest
which any statue of Burns adorns. The site is the
eastern end of the Reserve, opposite Government
House Domain, on Adelaide's glorious North Terrace.
In close proximity are the Public Library,
Art Gallery, Museum, University and School of
Since that was written the statue has been moved twice to different locations North Terrace. First to the Art Gallery* and more recently, after restoration, to the State Library.
At the unveiling ceremony, which was presided
over by His Excellency the Lieutenant Governor,
who was received by a guard of honor of the Permanent
Artillery, there were present two direct
descendants of Burns, namely, Mrs. McLellan, a
grand-daughter, who still resides in South Australia,
and Mrs. Burns Scott, a great-grand-daughter.
Thousands of people thronged North Terrace at its
intersection with Kintore Avenue when Hon. John
Darling, M. L. C., pulled the cord and exposed the
figure of the Immortal Bard to their admiring gaze.
As mentioned, this was the second statue of Burns in Australia; the first was at Ballarat, where, according to Goodwillie, a crowd of 40,000 people was present for its dedication. It's not unlikely that a similar crowd was present in Adelaide. I have previously mentioned the elaborate ceremony held in 1905 in Sydney. In an audio file found on the Artlab Australia website, Joanna Barr, who worked on the restoration of Adelaide's Burns, discusses the change in the response of the public to memorials since the late 19th and early 20th century. Although elaborate ceremonies and huge crowds are not longer seen, she tells of the considerable interest in the statue which its restoration attracted.
The Bard
The Adelaide statue of Burns is of Angaston
marble, and is erected on a pedestal of Monarto
granite. On the die is engraved:
1759 -1796."
The inscription on the base is:
"Presented to the City of Adelaide by the Caledonian
Society, and unveiled by the Chief, The
Hon. John Darling, M. L. C., 5th May, 1894."
The statue is full life-size and stands, with the
pedestal, thirteen and a half feet high. The poet is
represented in the garb worn during his first winter
in Edinburgh when he wore the livery of Charles
Fox, blue coat with brass buttons, yellow buckskin,
and top boots. He is supposed to be reciting the
poem of a "Winter's Night" to a company assembled
at the Duchess of Gordon's house in the Scottish
Capital. The attitude is taken from Hardy's
centennial picture, now in the possession of Mrs.
Barr Smith, of Adelaide.

I have noted that the statue by Frederick Pomeroy in the Sydney Domain shows the poet with rather dainty shoes even though he is standing at the plough. The Adelaide statue correctly shows the boots he favoured, even when mixing with the cognoscenti of Edinburgh.
The Angaston marble used for the statue is found in South Australia.*
The sculptor, Mr. W. J. Maxwell, was born in
Scotland, and took his degree in the School of Arts,
London. One of the last works he was engaged
upon in England was the restoration of the enrichments
of Westminster Abbey. Going to Australia
in search of health, he executed the architectural
adornments of all the public buildings in Adelaide,
besides many in Sydney and Melbourne. The Adelaide
"Burns" was the first public statue which he
chiselled, but before leaving Scotland, he prepared
a model of the poet which gained the silver medal
at Kilmarnock. The Adelaide statue impresses the
spectator with a sense of both strength and grace.

Mr. W.J. Maxwell was an interesting figure: he did other work in Adelaide and also worked on St. Mary's Cathedral in Sydney but has no entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. He is, however still remembered in Scotland. A short biography appears at Glasgow - City of Sculpture, from which it appears that he also designed and built a "mock castle" named Woodlands Park at Edwardstown SA. It's not everyone who lives in a castle of their own construction, and it's a pity that Maxwell's has gone, and that we don't know more about his life and personality.
The restoration I mentioned began in 2002 when it was reported that:
The Adelaide City Council says the 107-year-old statue needs substantial repairs including work to reassemble its left arm and to stabilise cracks.
A missing finger also needs to be remodelled.
Pictures of the work on the left arm are at Artlab.
I don't know if the finger was remodelled - but it isn't there now.

( * information from audio by Joanna Barr at ArtLab.)