Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in rep until 28 August
The quest for King Arthur is not to be undertaken lightly. The RSC’s éminence grise, John Barton, has devoted much of his life to it — or at least what has remained to him after Tantalus, his nine-hour dramatisation of the literature piled up around the walls of Troy. It’s not Barton, though, but Mike Poulton who’s now claiming the Grail of a completed stage adaptation of Sir Thomas Malory’s massive Arthurian epic. It’s taken Poulton ten years and the result, running for nearly four hours, arrives at Stratford directed by Gregory Doran.
In 2005 Poulton and Doran came up with a totally delightful show based on the Canterbury Tales. But Morte d’Arthur was always going to be a tougher proposition. Writing a century after Chaucer and towards the end of the Wars of the Roses, Malory cobbled together many diverse stories round and about Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere, most of them ‘taken oute of certeyn bookes of Frensshe and …reduced into Englysshe’. Faced with such a cornucopia, Poulton has wisely thrown a thousand knights and ladies to the winds, concentrating on the more coherent saga of Arthur and his Round Table as told in the last two of Malory’s 21 books. He could with advantage have been even tougher. To expect folk to hang on to the fortunes of the likes of Leodegrance, Pellinor, Lot, Lamorak and Accolon through a long evening is a pretty severe test of their fealty.
Director Gregory Doran is good at storytelling and manfully shoulders the narrative burden. He seizes every opportunity for striking theatrical display, as in the inauguration of the Round Table, jousting on horseback, and the scenes of mourning for Uther Pendragon and for Arthur. We first meet Sam Troughton’s Arthur whisking the sword out of the anvil as though it were a toy. Thereafter he grows into a rather unattractive, impulsive figure. He movingly portrays Arthur’s disintegration and death, but it’s a one-dimensional characterisation, lacking nuance and charm. Jonjo O’Neill’s Lancelot fields both energy and real charisma; the antagonism between him and Oliver Ryan’s fire-spitting Gawain holds the stage. Kirsty Woodward’s Guenever floats rather distantly through the show, making one the more grateful for Mariah Gale’s beautifully played Elaine of Astolat, dying of her unrequited love for Lancelot.
Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son and nemesis, is amusingly portrayed by Peter Peverley as a caricature Richard III (which at least chimes with the chronology of Malory’s work). There’s more fun from Gruffudd Glyn’s Gareth, brother to Gawain, whether in his guise as a tap-dancing bear or as a scullion laying about a heavily armed combatant with his pots and pans.
That one is so grateful for the light relief is a symptom of something amiss. The players are sometimes barely suppressing their incredulity at what’s going on. Malory has been humanised, brought with a bump into the 21st century, but with a fatal loss of that rhetoric and antique style which are of its essence. You don’t have to be a Brechtian to see there can be more dramatic vitality in alienation, in celebrating strangeness than in striving to make it real.
Very much for real is the RSC’s rebuild of its 1932 riverside theatre, now rapidly nearing completion for the official opening next year. I enjoyed a hard-hat tour of the thrust-stage auditorium — none of its 1,030 seats will be farther from the action than 15 metres (previously 27). Striving to achieve comfort in a confined space, those seats have been made by Poltrona Frau which supplies Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Ferrari. As you settle in you’ll be dreaming of performances that’ll be the theatrical-thrill equivalent of those cars. If you’d like to sponsor one of these red seats, contact www.rsc.org.uk/appeal. Just over £5 million of the £113 million target remains to be raised.