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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Courtyard, Stratford-upon-Avon


  Sam Troughton and company

Curiously, Shakespeare never got around to writing about King Arthur, preferring to write about less famous British monarchs, Cymbeline and King Lear. Which is perhaps why the Royal Shakespeare Company has filled the gap with this adaptation of Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, written during the 15th century Wars of the Roses, those same civil wars that the young Shakespeare was a century later to dramatise in his Henry VI/Richard III plays.
Mike Poulting’s script is an almost four-hour-long event in which he tries to contain and shape this sprawling, discursive, magnificent, huge stained glass window of a book. It's not an easy read, as I see from the bookmark that is still in my copy less than a fifth of the way through; that's from my last attempt at reading Malory, which coincided with David Freeman's half-cocked promenade version in London 20 years ago.
The evening is divided into three parts, and Sam Troughton is of course central as Arthur, who, as a boy, pulls the sword from the stone and by the end of the evening is worn down by battles and bedroom betrayals by Guenever (Kirsty Woodward) for Launcelot. Other characters that will be familiar include Forbes Masson as a Billy Connolly-like Merlin who makes an early exit. Peter Peverley smirking entertainingly as evil Mordred, Arthur’s bastard and rival. Noma Dumezweni is a scheming Morgan Le Fay, and Gruffud Glyn is charmingly ingenuous as Gareth, a knight (chiefly Malory’s invention) who plays a big part in this tapestry of trouble and strife.
The look is medieval with plenty of chainmail, big swords, the women’s heads sporting wimples the size of MASH tents. The lighting effects by Tim Mitchell are spectacular, and the show has some great visual moments. One highlight is Elaine (Mariah Gale) who, rejected by Launcelot, dies of grief and – a wonderful pre-Raphelite image, this – is floated vertically offstage in a barge. A few such coups from Director Gregory Doran are the reward for our perseverance.
There’s something, however, Poulting’s script cannot drown out, and that is the sound of a verbal parody running on a simultaneous loop in one’s head. Monty Python and the Holy Grail – and lately Spamalot – have with lethal period pastiche dealt Malory’s “fickle errant knights” a mortal comic blow. How disappointing not to hear Sir Bedevere’s line: “And that, my liege, is how we knoweth the Earth to be banana shaped.”
In the end, this ambitious event tries and fails to find a dramatic solution to a book that clearly doesn’t want to be a play. Impressive in parts, it never rises to anything transcendent; the idea of a chivalric world suffused with mysticism and spiritual yearning is not there on stage. While it undeniably has Shakespearean overtones, as befits this address, there’s a clanging relentlessness to the evening as well as an abundance of boring bits.

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