Sir Thomas Malory, in a new adaptation by Mike Poulton
Royal Shakespeare Company
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Published in London by Caxton in 1485, fourteen years after its authors unprepossessing death as prisoner in Newgate Prison, Morte DArthur is the stuff of legend. Knights in shining armour rescue damsels in distress from castle towers, lords and squires squabble to be near the king and to be selected to sit at the Round Table, battles are fought and lost, children robbed of their birthright, all wrapped up in sixth-century pseudo-history. Legend, yes. Englands true historical past, hardly.
Despite its dubious historical accuracy, the myth surrounding King Arthur and his Round-Table knights captured generations of imaginative artists, each seeking to recreate a fanciful world in which pagan magic fights hand-in-glove with Christian object-worship, wizards and Celtic lake-goddesses rubbing shoulders with Holy Grail seekers and confronters of Satan himself.
Malory, sitting alone (but, as a knight, no doubt well-provided for) in his Newgate Prison cell, composed the original Morte DArthur, its heroes plucked from twelfth-century Christianized histories and French verse narratives that promoted a chivalric code for the aristocratic fighting élite of Europe. Malory, one of this élite, might write of heroes and chivalry, but his imprisonment points to a far more ignominious life for this knightly thug, accused of violence, rustling, extortion and, twice, of rape. How odd that this fifteenth-century cad in tarnished armour should create such a lasting legacy.
For lasting legacy it is, as Mike Poultons excellent adaptation of the Arthurian legend shows. Tales that are part of the English and Welsh, if not wholly British, psyche come vividly to life on the Courtyard stage. Under Gregory Dorans deft direction, actors recreate this mythical world with a passion that verges on religious fervour. Christian imagery and references abound. This is as close to the wondrous effect of a medieval miracle play as it is possible to imagine. Why else, at the end of the second section of the play as the innocent Sir Percival is embraced on his journey heavenwards by the outstretched wings of an Angel, should a tear well in this hard-hearted reviewers eye?
There is no doubting the play is long. At three hours and forty-five minutes, including one interval, this registers like a peculiarly English Oberammergau, its heady narrative perhaps a little too nationalistic for the foreign tourists who pack the RSC venue. Nevertheless, allow yourself to be immersed in the imagery, to wallow in Poultons skilful rendering of fifteenth-century dialogue, to soak up the unfolding narrative that leads from childish lad drawing a sword from stone and anvil to a crabbed and bitter king, and the journey will not be wasted.
In the process, you will meet with Arthur and Guenever, Morgan le Fay and Launcelot, Gawain and Merlin, and all the other names that are as familiar to us as any Falstaff or Hamlet, Gertrude or Prospero, Ophelia or Lady Macbeth. Principal among these is King Arthur, played with wide-eyed intensity by Sam Troughton. This is a king who embraces power with boyish delight, only to be trodden down by the cares of rule. Occasionally as cold as any Herod, especially when ordering the rounding-up and drowning of new-born English babes to destroy the child he mistakenly begets by his sister, Troughtons Arthur strides and then hobbles through the play in regal splendour.
Forbes Masson likewise shines as a mischievous Merlin, ever willing to advise his king but ultimately destroyed by his own human fallibility and uncontrollable lust. Noma Dumezweni provides a deliciously evil Morgan le Fay, her every gesture and word offered with the weight of a thousand murderous daggers.
These great performances besides, this is also as impressive an ensemble as one could hope for. All the parts are played with an inner strength and integrity which perfectly suits the religiosity and downright skulduggery of the piece. Doran weaves his wonderful cast into an effective unit, as ready to fight pagan and Christian devils as they are to squabble amongst themselves. True spectacle, made more intense by Katrina Lindsays magically simple design, which provides the visual surface for Tim Mitchells innovative lighting.
If the sound of softly-rustling chainmail or the sight of medieval steeple headdresses and flowing robes are your thing, this play is for you. Forget your Budget worries, your Coalition blues and oranges, or your debt-crisis greens. Let the RSC transport you back to a world where the only danger was from a poisoned cloak or a passing red-dyed knight. Arthur has, indeed, returned.