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The Lady of the Lake

Benjamin Askew
Theatre by the Lake
Theatre by the Lake

Emily Tucker (Morgan), Charlotte Mulliner (Nimue) Credit: Keith Pattison
Charlotte Mulliner (Nimue), Patrick Bridgman (Arthur/Old Taliesin) Credit: Keith Pattison
Ben Ingles (Owain) Credit: Keith Pattison
Ben Ingles (Owain), Emily Tucker (Morgan), Patrick Bridgman (Arthur/Old Taliesin) Credit: Keith Pattison
Richard Keightley (Taliesin) Credit: Keith Pattison

Familiar to Keswick theatregoers as a past member of the summer season acting company Benjamin Askew's contribution to the current Theatre by the Lake programme is as a writer—which at least gets him his largest ever profile photo in the programme.

His first full-length play is a verse drama based on some of the legends of King Arthur with a particular Wales-Cumbria twist. But this is largely the background upon which Askew's real message is painted.

The tale is told by the Welsh bard Taliesin. Argante is the Queen of Avalon; Morgan and Nimue are the Daughters of the Lake. Nimue has been groomed to become the May Queen, but she is spoiled and arrogant and Argante chooses Morgan, King Arthur's sister, instead, much to the distress of both girls.

In the ceremony that follows, Morgan ends up pregnant to her own brother and Nimue vows to take for herself her rightful role as Queen to Arthur and Lady of the Lake. Then Morgan loses her child, names him Mordred and also plots her revenge.

But what this is really about is storytelling: the way the story is told creates the legacy and the myth, not what actually happened—rather like Tennessee Williams's legacy of the artist in the double bill also running in the Studio in this season.

And so we get the language of storytelling frequently when people are being cast in their roles: Nimue is told to "be satisfied with subplot", Merlin is told, "you've made yourself a character", Taliesin is "the great god Narrative incarnate" who believes that "what happens doesn't matter; all that does is how it is recounted".

What we see happen isn't entirely familiar, but by the end Nimue has set it all up for the familiar stories to take over from the drudgery of reality.

It is also about the power of narrative to interpret things as they happen. Merlin is described as "a magician who doesn't believe in magic" as he doesn't really think that his potions have more than a psychological effect on those who take them. We are left to decide for ourselves whether certain events are magical or coincidental, whatever the characters believe.

Askew writes very well in verse with a complex plot that does work, although it is easy to become indulgent when writing verse and this play could benefit from being a bit shorter. Towards the end, one of the characters states, "this climax is too complex", and it's difficult to disagree.

There are some great performances from TBTL regulars Patrick Bridgeman as a rather pathetic Arthur and Ben Ingles as a hotheaded Owain, always on the verge of rebellion. However it is the two girls, Emily Tucker as Morgan and especially Charlotte Mulliner as Nimue, who stand out with their very powerful and detailed performances.

Mary Papadima's production moves like a dream with choreographed transitions between scenes that have now become fashionable but, unusually, done superbly well to add to the overall effect rather than just to the running time as is often the case.

Be prepared for a late finish, but otherwise this is a promising debut from Askew with some very impressive performances and certainly worth seeing.

Reviewer: David Chadderton