Monday, August 30, 2010

Theatre Review: final performance of Morte D'Arthur - RSC, Courtyard Theatre, Stratford Saturday 28 August 2010


The Greg Doran and Mike Poulton production of Morte D'Arthur was certainly something I had wanted to see. But we were far too tardy for our own good in booking for the current season at Stratford and it seemed likely we'd therefore miss out.

Whilst reviews were best described as 'mixed', I felt in this case I could trust Billington's enthusiastic Guardian review. And I felt even more loss at missing the chance to see the RSC production.

Thankfully, help came from an unexpected source - the combination of 'erring on the side of caution' from a friend (who felt the production was unlikely to be suitable for a young girl) and a lovely family of grandma, daughter and granddaughter that Helen and I had met back in October 2008.* And so it was, that at the last minute Neil and I got the chance to go and see Morte D'Arthur.

Neil and I travelled down and arrived in a storm of drumming from a troupe of Chinese drummers: a welcome for us only just about topped by the delightful sight of two of the family that H and I had befriended. I felt rotten that we were depriving grandma and granddaughter of their tickets (since it would be the mum who was accompanying us) but with such an enthusiastic welcome it was hard to feel bad for long. The excitement of the drumming performance set our hearts racing - and our youngest member even more so when she realised how many of the actors had come out to enjoy the lively performance. There was an especially giddy delight in spotting JonJo O'Neill (no NOT the 1980s jockey, despite Neil's poor jokes!) as he was a firm favourite and one that the family had already delighted in running into the previous evening out shopping.

JonJo is utterly charming - how could he not be with such a delightful Belfast accent - and the pleasure our youngest companion got from standing next to him was positively radiant. Of course, this had to be the day where we had NO CAMERA with us (doh!) so at last we frantically pulled out my phone and I passed it on to grandma who scuttled over to take a picture of the two of them. I watched on, only to be determinedly waved over to join the shot!

(I'll let my friends keep the full image as private as I'm very aware of how photographs can be misused - but the smile our youngest friend had was infectious).

We knew it would be a long production, the show was not much under 4 hours even with a break and pause, and I did fear that years of 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' / 'Spamalot' would have tainted the narrative too much. But we needn't have feared; the production came with plenty of intentional laughter, but it was also incredibly beautiful - the costumes were fantastic - and the music was incredible. (The RSC musicians must be some of the most talented working in theatre anywhere - their range and skills are breathtaking to listen to). Forbes Masson again proved that he has the most incredible voice - the heights his vocal range can hold are the sounds of angels (and it was especially nice to tell him so after the performance).

Sam Troughton (Arthur) and Forbes Masson (Merlin)

Split into three sections, the play covers revenge, magic, adultery and religion in almost equal measures. There is a devil (quite terrifying), there are family feuds that make soaps look straightforward, and there is love in all forms -- unrequited, cuckolded, transgressive, and pure. No character is truly without flaw - though the charming Gareth, who arrives as a bear before winning over the court to become a knight, comes pretty close. At the other end of the spectrum is the nigh irredeemable Mordred, played with great relish by Peter Peverley as an oily, tell-tale, conniving weed. And the actor seems such a nice bloke! But he does a great job with a wicked part since for all his evil, the audience can't help but laugh at his nastiness (for example when he's trying to arrange it so he can marry 'widowed' Guenever, his efforts to look pleased at hearing Arthur isn't dead as expected -- 'I had letters to the contrary' -- doesn't convince anyone, but it's mighty hilarious nonetheless!)

Of all the characters in the winding tale, Launcelot is the most deluded; he believes his love for Guenever is pure but it is hard to deny that he is 'naked' with her in her bedchamber (though not as naked as some maybe thought possible). The hapless Elaine -- Mariah Gale as a quintessential teenager in full-blown crush-mode -- inevitably falls for Launcelot's looks, charm and politeness, completely missing that his heart belongs to another. And in pursuing the Grail, it is Launcelot's heart that sees bewinged angels.

Jonjo O'Neill as Launcelot and James Howard as the Grail Angel in Morte d'Arthur. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

I feel so incredibly privileged that we got to see this show - it was spectacular and beautiful on every level. But there were other aside pleasures: besides reuniting with our friends of the Saturday October 2008 matinee, I also ran into a couple who had sat near Helen and I on the Friday October 2008 evening performance. And then, in a lovely reversal of the Saturday afternoon of October 2008 when I had encouraged our youngest friend to the stage door, grandma encouraged me to do my own autograph gathering. I ended up speaking to and getting autographs from 15 of the cast and crew - including, to my great delight, Greg Doran. Everyone was utterly delightful as we chatted about hot weighty costumes, desperate thirst, loving the chance to sing, the chaos of stage door chatter, the art of signing in mid-air and much more. I wouldn't have dared do all that without encouragement - I kept automatically lurching back into helping smaller people forward, and loaning my pen out - so it was a real treat to end up with so many signatures.

A total delight and a day I will treasure for quite a long time.

*You remember October 2008? When Love's Labours Lost and Hamlet ruled our every activity...

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