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The Death Of King Arthur

Simon Armitage
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse Shakespeare’s Globe

Simon Armitage Credit: Helen Miscioscia

One of the sources for Thomas Malory’s 1485 Le Morte D’Arthur, the Alliterative Morte D’Arthur by an unknown hand dates from about 1400. Only one copy exists in Lincoln Cathedral.

Written, it seems, in a north-east Midlands dialect, who better than the softly spoken Yorkshireman and newly elected Oxford Professor Of Poetry Simon Armitage to rewrite it as The Death of King Arthur (published in 2012 to universal acclaim) for a modern age.

Quite a feat, on the page it positively races along—155 pages in paperback—through Arthur’s European campaign against the homage-demanding Roman Emperor Lucius and his mercenary army of heathens to his battle with his nephew, the usurping Mordred, on home ground, the language compulsive and propulsive. Throughout, one sees embryos of so many of Shakespeare’s plays.

“Attend with your ears as this tale unfolds.” Oral tradition is updated to a semi-dramatized reading in the snug candle-lit Jacobean Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, not as a solo memorized performance like Julian Glover’s gripping Beowulf: narrator Armitage comes with the assistance of two actors, a musician and text in hand.

Paul Johnson’s bagpipes prepare the way, and his array of wood and percussive instruments provide the mood music, which at times drowns and swallows up Armitage’s thin reed of a voice. I long for silence and stillness, just the sound of the human voice with no decoration, and the thoughts that arise, but I could be alone in this. The audience loves it.

This is a text edited for performance to which the actors bring humanising distraction, especially in the two prophetic dream sequences. Text shared between three, the focus shifts constantly and momentum never flags, but the contrast between an untrained voice and two trained voices is stark.

Actors David Birrell and Polly Frame are excellent, a glance enough to suggest irony and comment: he a baritone Arthur, she a mezzosoprano, changing character with a chameleon shift of accent and inflection. He sturdy and strong, she slight and nimble clambering over the audience, running from side to side to take her place as a new character.

I wonder whether director Nick Bagnall is cannily satirising an am-dram production, a guild giving a morality play their best, which allows for the lack of projection on the part of the laconic narrator at his lectern, who wittily and subtly subverts his own reading.

Bloody warfare can be tedious fare, but there’s so much graphic juicy spilled guts and gore, bodies spliced in two, so Monty Python and The Holy Grail that the audience laughs out loud:

“and with Excalibur clinically cleaved him in half,
sliced that soldier, even split the saddle,
so the steed’s back was strewn with his bowels.
…through the abdomen of one who had angered him hugely
he tilted and tore through his mail,
so half of that hostile lay heaped on the earth
and the other rode onward still seated on his horse.”

The endgame comes soon enough: the evening is only a hundred minutes with interval. Arthur’s two swords, Excalibur and Clarent, the sword Mordred has appropriated, clash. “Mettle shall be tested where metal meets mail.” Mordred is slain and Arthur mortally wounded. Along with many of his knights “The once and future King”, “of Hector’s kin” is dead.

This is a flawed Arthur, one who may forbid raping but who pounds hospitals and monasteries, churches and chapels, houses and hostelries, where “ the agony of inhabitants was harrowing to hear” ... “everywhere in his wake he wasted through war / their wealth and their houses, and awoke their woe.” Cutting a scythe through Europe to the gates of Rome, which capitulates when he takes “eight-score charming and high-bred children” hostage.

Morality is invoked in a dream, damnation for “unseemly pursuits”, Fortune’s Wheel grinds them all to her tune, though Lady Fortune’s lengthy lines are unfortunately broken and shared between all three performers, her change from benign to malevolent dissipated.

“You have shed much blood, butchered many beings,
killed civilians out of vanity through vast kingdom.”

In other words, confess your sins and crimes, before you are named in romances and worshipped as “the worthiest warrior”. Arthur confesses in the same breath as he orders Mordred’s children to be slain. Different times, not so different mores, the lay of our glorious heritage given glamorous life.

Reviewer: Vera Liber