There is, of course, one moment where staging Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The King and I” ‘in the round’ at the Royal Albert Hall well and truly comes into its own – and that’s the moment where Anna and the King of Siam finally (and really quite erotically) lock arms and bodies and enjoy a climactic lap of honour of “Shall We Dance?” twice sweeping the circumference of the Albert Hall arena as if on some massive movie soundstage of the palace ballroom. We will have all thought of the movie at this point, not least on account of the 40-piece band (the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra sounding like 140 under Gareth Valentine’s assured direction) and the sheer scale of the imagery. Add into the mix the supreme irony of Siam being effectively dropped into the centre of the grandest Victorian folly ever conceived and you’ve a tidy metaphor for cultural clash right there before even a note of music or dialogue has been sounded.
The problem with the hall, however good your sound designer, is the horrendous lack of intimacy with dialogue going cosmic and ricochetting about the auditorium as if determined to be heard as well as seen from outer space. To their eternal credit, Maria Friedman (Anna) and Daniel Dae Kim (the King) still managed to make every word tell with charm, humour, and poignancy. Friedman had the style to a T curbing her chest voice and minding her manners whilst wholeheartedly conveying the passionate woman secretly inhabiting the gigantic hooped skirts. The wondrous verse of “Hello Young Lovers” evoked a palpable sense of misty-eyed nostalgia.
Well, it helps that it is a conspicuously great song and it helps too that Oscar Hammerstein’s book sets it up so deftly. But really, seeing this piece again serves to remind one how skilfully it is crafted. Who but a Hammerstein could set up the act one curtain line in a prayer? The moment where the King finally fulfills his promise to give Anna what she so desires – a house – is a guarenteed choking-up moment because he honours his promise in return for hers. Anna may take time to understand the King but she quickly recognises his pride. And that process of “getting to know” him, and he her, is the dramatic core of what drives the show. Let no one even intimate that Hammerstein was not a great lyricist and book writer. And lest you dare, how about the reprise of “Hello Young Lovers” which suddenly switches its focus from Anna’s romantic past to Tuptin and Lun Tha’s present. Likewise the ingenuity of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” ballet in act two which in addition to ‘that’ polka is another good reason for the Albert Hall treatment and worked better in this context than it ever does on a proscenium stage.