Camelot: The Shining City

James Phillips
Slung Low and Sheffield Theatres
Crucible Theatre

Camelot: The Shining City Credit: Mark Douet
Tia Bannon as Bear Credit: Mark Douet

For the next few evenings, the centre of Sheffield will close down to accommodate a promenade performance of Camelot: The Shining City.

Writer James Phillips and Alan Lane, Director of Slung Low Theatre Company, have previously collaborated on ambitious, large-scale community theatre projects, including last year’s The White Whale set on the Leeds canal.

Camelot is an extremely exciting theatrical experience. It starts in the main house of the Crucible where the large thrust stage amply accommodates 150 performers as they march and weave in fascinating choreographed patterns.

The audience is then ‘evacuated’ with remarkable efficiency to the adjacent Tudor Square, where metal safety barriers denote the traverse setting for the central narrative and pageant sequences. The final venue, after a processional walk, is the nearby Peace Gardens, where civil war is enacted.

Phillips and Lane have an eye for the potential of a setting, so in Tudor Square the raised acting area at one end of the traverse is complemented by the use of the theatre’s indoor hospitality suite at the other, and the performance area is wide enough to accommodate a military vehicle driven at speed.

The action of the play is inspired by the Arthur legend, particularly in his evocation as ‘the once and future king’ who will revive the land. The setting is today and the references are contemporary ones to our ‘divided’ society and the threat of ISIS.

The main characters are recognisable though adapted. Merlin is a paraplegic teacher; Arthur is a principled and charismatic young woman, Bear, with powerful leadership qualities; Luke is known as First Knight, and could be identified as Lancelot or Guinevere, the loyal knight and betrayer. Galahad, the pure knight, is a Christ figure.

While the performance is bursting with energy with its many sword fights and remarkable special effects, the play itself is a serious piece of political writing, set in Sheffield, exploring more general issues about society, Englishness, leadership, and ‘what happens when people go forward by going backwards’ (Phillips, programme interview).

The main characters are, on the whole, played by professional actors. Tia Bannon is a dynamic ‘Arthur’, Ed MacArthur gives a strong supporting performance as Luke/First Knight, and Sam Guest, a non-professional, is convincingly spiritual as Galahad.

The huge extended company is impressive, totally absorbed in their roles, drilled to perfection in the movement, fight and pageant sequences and indistinguishable from the professional performers in commitment and serious intention.

There is something magical about the whole experience. The evacuation of the theatre transforms the audience into participants in the action. The processional, silent walk from Tudor Square to the Peace Gardens allows a pause for reflection. To sit in a familiar city square with explosions, gunfire and death all around us is to be part of the daily newsreels from far off war zones.

The audience members are issued on arrival with a recorder and headphones which are worn throughout the performance. This is all extremely efficient, and the audio capability is very helpful when, from time to time, part of the outdoor stage action is obscured.

This is an unusual and very impressive theatrical experience and a valuable collaboration between Slung Low and Sheffield Theatres and all the talented people in Sheffield People’s Theatre.

Reviewer: Velda Harris