Jamie Wilkes
Jethro Compton Productions
Stratford Circus

Sam Donnelly as Lancelot and Hayden Wood as Arthur Credit: Jethro Compton Productions

There is building work in progress at Stratford Circus so audiences have to go back on to the street to take a back way into the performance space for Morgana.

They don’t find themselves in a conventional auditorium but a simulated World War One hurricane lamp lit dugout with earth floor, corrugated iron roof and walls of scrap timber and sacking. Here, on bench seating, they eavesdrop on three young British Army officers at the Front.

This isn’t a play about the slaughter, although knowledge of it is a dark shadow behind what otherwise might seem light-hearted; it is a glimpse into these soldiers’ lives off-duty.

These are not strangers thrown together but three young lieutenants who were all at a Somerset boarding school together. Two of them have know each other since they were four, so they share a background. In months, they’ve gone from schoolboys to grown men responsible for the lives of others but their relationships are not much altered.

Back at school, a group of friends, thirteen of them, inspired by the lays of Arthurian legend, formed themselves into their own round table, giving themselves its knights’ names. These three were King Arthur, Sir Lancelot and Sir Gawain, names they still call each other, and there are parallels between their real lives and the knightly names they carry and Round Table concepts of honour and duty.

Jamie Wilkes’s play offers a mixture of still-juvenile joshing, memory, dreaming and reality. Morgana in the Arthur legends could be both good and evil and shape-change too. Here she is all the women in real life and in fantasy. For Gawain she is a mysterious girl that he hears whistling in no-man’s-land, a prostitute with whom Lancelot sets him up and the French girl with whom he is falling in love. For Lancelot and Arthur, she is Gwynne, the girl they left behind with whom Lancelot fell in love and who is promised to Arthur, just like Guinevere in the legends.

Hayden Wood plays the more mature-seeming Arthur, though still enthusiastically giving his impersonation of the eccentric old owl of a headmaster they nicknamed Merlin. Jonathan Mathews is Gawain, neurotically talking non-stop, always the baby of the group and now even more so: naïve and romantic, an innocent virgin.

Lancelot is irritated by Gawain’s continuing childishness; Arthur tells him to stop being a bully, but Sam Donnelly’s performance suggests there is something else there, a disguised protectiveness, perhaps an unacknowledged homosexual attraction, though he still carries a torch for Gwynne, though knowing she does not love him, fantasising about her nightly before he can sleep.

Between them, appearing in the dug-out or in memory of real life, moves Bebe Sanders as Morgana, Somerset- or French-accented according to whom they are imagining or remembering, suggesting a gentle maturity and understanding the men have not reached yet.

On the surface, Wilkes’s script is lightweight and full of humour but Jethro Compton’s direction brings out a deeper meaning from its opening with the Christmas carols that mark the Christmas Truce of 1914 to an ultimate exit that seems symbolic. It is a production more moving than one might expect.

Morgana is one part of The Bunker Trilogy, the other parts of which take inspiration from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with which it plays in repertoire. This production was first staged on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013 and the trilogy played there again in 2014 with a change of cast and also in London and Australia.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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