Monty Python notwithstanding, the tale of King Arthur is a dark and melancholy one. The unity symbolized by the round table is a daydream, the Holy Grail a fruitless quest, the final confrontation between Arthur and his misbegotten son Mordred a pointless slaughter that leaves a battlefield of corpses with a bleak wind blowing over them. Camelot, as we know it must, crumbles.
All this King Arthur’s Night, an unconventional work by Vancouver’s Neworld Theatre, captures with heart and insight.
Written by Niall McNeil, who plays the impatient, petulant Arthur, and Marcus Youssef, another cast member, the show also presents the conundrum that’s helped make the story compelling for millennia: The adulterous affair between Arthur’s trusted knight Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, a love that’s at once incompatible with the correct order of things and a metaphor for all that’s both precious and unsustainable in life.
The production by Neworld features some actors, McNeil among them, with Down syndrome, plus other performers. There’s also music composed by Veda Hille, a west coast artist who’s inherently comfortable with the unconventional, and performed by two on-stage musicians and a 16-member choir.
The show opens with Arthur and one of his retinue bantering about the play, commenting on a photo of Ottawa-born McNeil as a youngster, and referencing Harrison Hot Springs in British Columbia. Arthur’s obsequious/impertinent retinue member (the program lists cast members but not the characters they play) also regularly repeats McNeil’s words, which can be difficult to understand until your ear grows used to his speaking style.
The show then segues into Camelot with its mix of intrigue and power struggles, idealism, and overarching atmosphere of inevitable doom. Arthur’s creepy sister Morgana, the mother of Mordred, skulks around, while the choir sings – graphically – about her incestuous impregnation. Arthur and Guinevere (Tiffany King, who also has Down syndrome) sit on their thrones and talk about things, royal and otherwise. The earnest Lancelot, over the moon for Guinevere, makes multiple appearances. Mordred, who’s half goat, lusts for his father’s crown.
Arthur is a bit of a wiseass, so some of this stuff is very funny. Morgana not being above mimicking her brother’s facial tics, some of it is also very cruel.
If you’ve ever had the good fortune to read Le Morte d’Arthur, Thomas Malory’s sprawling 15th century amalgam of Arthurian legends, you’ll think of it when viewing this diverse accounting of Camelot.
You’ll also apply the unhurried and accepting approach you need when reading Malory’s work to viewing King Arthur’s Night. One of the points of the production is inclusivity, and that means a mix of performance styles. The actors with Down syndrome do not operate with the same kind of fluidity as do the other performers and that we are accustomed to seeing on professional stages. They sometimes have trouble with their lines, move differently, seem to have a rhythm not quite like that of most of us.
All that can feel jarring at first, when your attention focuses more on the unconventional aspects of performance than on the story that this particular production is telling. But let go of the preconceptions of what we think we should see on stage – a task made easier thanks to the smart work of director James Long and chief choreographer Josh Martin – and you soon slip into this particular vision of a world gone awry and understand why, during the preamble, we’re urged by Arthur’s man to experience “true presence.”
Barriers may not tumble as a result, but they do seem less insurmountable, and the lessons of a long-ago mythical world suddenly again feel urgent.
Whether we in the 21st century can finally create a lasting Camelot remains, of course, an open question.
King Arthur’s Night is a Neworld Theatre (Vancouver) Production. Commissioned by Luminato (Toronto), it’s co-produced by the National Arts Centre and is part of Canada Scene. It was reviewed Saturday. In the Azrieli Studio (NAC Studio) until June 26. Tickets: nac-cna.ca