King Arthur’s Night opens the door to new worlds

Neworld Theatre is presenting King Arthur's Night as part of the PuSh Festival .

Niall McNeil plays King Arthur in this adaptation of the legend, which he co-wrote with Marcus Youssef. (Photo by Tristan Casey)

Theatre moves me to tears on a regular basis. But after watching King Arthur’s Night I flat out sobbed. This show speaks so concretely—and so skilfully—to isolation and inclusion.

The publicity material for King Arthur’s Night describes it as “radically inclusive”—and it is. Niall McNeil and Marcus Youssef co-wrote the text, although, after an introductory scene between the two—McNeil plays Arthur and Youssef is Merlin—Youssef acknowledges that the rest of the play is in McNeil’s words. McNeil lives with Down syndrome and so do several other company members, including Tiffany King, who plays Guinevere.

The basic story stays the same. A knight named Lancelot is in love with Guinevere, who is Arthur’s queen. Guinevere and Lancelot struggle to express their affection without dishonouring Arthur, whom they also both love. In McNeil’s telling, as in some others, Arthur also has an adult child named Mordred, whom he conceived with Morgana, his half-sister. Arthur is cold to Mordred and Morgana plots to put her son on the throne. “He’s sitting in your chair,” she hisses.

Within that framework, McNeil introduces a sensibility that’s elemental, deeply felt, and, in its startling directness, often funny. “My liege, why can’t I get naked with her?” Lancelot asks Arthur. “It isn’t appropriate?” “Exactement,” Arthur replies to the French nobleman.

When Lancelot and Guinevere first meet, they communicate in birdsong.

And the script gets even more associative. In the opening scene, in which McNeil and Youssef speak directly to the audience, they tell us that McNeil, who started performing with the Caravan Farm Theatre in Armstrong when he was nine, had a traumatic experience with a goat: a billy escaped from his enclosure on the farm and chased him.

In King Arthur’s Night, Mordred is born with horns and there’s some debate about whether or not he’s a goat or a human. Mordred brutally beats a herd of goats and the animals eventually don armour and become Mordred’s soldiers when he wages war against the King.

Compassion is one of McNeil’s strengths as a playwright: like his goat army, Mordred isn’t simply evil; he is abused. “That’s not the way a father should treat his son,” Mordred tells Arthur. And, when the two finally resolve their differences, Arthur tells his once-rejected child, “You’re not a goat no more.”

There’s a kind of elemental poetry in McNeil’s writing, perhaps best exemplified in Morgana’s warning to Merlin: “This is my anger. My anger mountain. You don’t want me up here.”

Part of what makes that line work in this production is the poisonous restraint with which actor Kerry Sandomirsky delivers it. Sandomirsky has served several seasons at Bard on the Beach and she treats McNeil’s text exactly as she does Shakespeare’s: she fills its poetry with the full force of her humanity. Her Morgana could be Lady Macbeth.

Unflinchingly, McNeil’s text goes to some very dark places. In a flashback, Arthur and Morgana don horned masks to recreate Mordred’s conception. The chorus sings “The face of a goat…Dada Mama baa baa/Like a child” as the incestuous lovers stroke one another and Arthur describes his sibling “jumping on my dick.”

Throughout, Veda Hille’s original score supports and amplifies McNeil’s text. “The sun is rising,” the chorus sings as a new day dawns in Camelot. “Sunburn is cancer./Sunburn is cancer.”

Billy Marchenski’s Lancelot is ravishingly innocent. And Tiffany King’s Guinevere is so pure it hurts. While everybody is singing, one of the first times we see her, Guinevere holds Arthur’s hand and dances. It’s a deeply personal dance, King’s take on courtliness. Throughout the evening, her hands often move in a kind of sign language that is necessarily, essentially expressive. There’s dignity and stoicism in King’s performance, too, so, when Lancelot is finally about to return to France and she whispers “Goodbye”, it’s devastating.

King Arthur’s Night isn’t perfect. The opening scene I’ve mentioned goes on far too long and, unlike the rest of the show, it feels condescending, with Youssef leading McNeil through it. Sure, some set-up is probably helpful, but not this much. And the images in the slideshow that’s part of it are tiny and weak. There’s also a post-battle scene between a couple of secondary characters that felt unnecessary to me—although, on opening night, difficulties with one of the actor’s microphones might have contributed to my alienation.

And there’s so much to like. Christine Reimer’s costumes and Kyla Gardiner’s lighting are both sumptuous.

In director James Long’s staging of the battle, the chorus of singers emerges from behind scrims. They’re soldiers now, and, as they sing, they crumple to the ground. The sheer number of bodies lying on the foggy field makes the devastation feel real. And, in my favourite device, Guinevere claps her hands imperiously during one of the songs and all of the other players repeat her clapping rhythm. There’s such respect in that: King, the actor, is setting the terms rather than being forced to conform to more predictable rhythms.

Ultimately, that’s what’s so important about King Arthur’s Night: it opens us to realms of human experience and expression that we might ordinarily dismiss and it enriches us in the process.

KING ARTHUR’S NIGHT Written by Niall McNeil and Marcus Youssef with original music by Veda Hill, and directed by James Long. A Neworld Theatre production presented with UBC’s Department of Theatre and Film as part of the PuSh Festival. At the Frederic Wood Theatre on Wednesday, January 31. Continues until February 4.

Tickets. 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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