Having been so enthusiastic about the most recent Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation of a classic story (the wonderful Arabian Nights from last Christmas), I arrived in Stratford with high hopes for their latest venture – Mike Poulton’s version of Mallory’s Morte d'Arthur. Being a sucker for all things Arthurian, I was eager to see what they had shaped from the somewhat sprawling tales of the original.
There is no doubting that director Gregory Doran and his creative team have lavished much care and attention on the production. It features handsome costumes, effective music and a stunning lighting design by Tim Mitchell.
However, at three hours and 45 minutes, it’s a production massively in need of cuts. There is no denying that the tales of Arthur and his Knights have been slimmed down to work as a piece of theatre, but the current run-time remains excessive. Split into three sections, we’re treated to an hour of over-earnest exposition in the first section ‘The Fellowship of the Round Table’, plenty of action and humour in the middle ‘Adventures of the Sangrail’ and a rather over-extended finale surrounding the final battles of ‘The Morte d’Arthur’.
The influence of the original on many subsequent authors – from Shakespeare to Tolkein – is very clear, and the production brings home the epic nature of the myths and does not shy away from the heavily Christian imagery so beloved of Mallory. However, what we gain from the epic, we lose from the human. Guenever fails to register as a credible character, and without a real sense of the relationships she has with the men in her life, the subsequent conflict is difficult to comprehend.
Everyone in the ensemble acquits themselves with credit – with some fine performances notably from Dyfan Dwyfor (Percival/Lavaine) and Gruffud Glyn (Gareth), both of whom shine in their various roles. Forbes Masson brings just a hint of Billy Connolly to his warm portrayal of Merlin (pity his character disappears forever under a pile of rocks at the end of the first section) and Noma Dumezweni relishes her moments as Morgan Le Fay.
Still, the characterisation is not as defined as it might be for absolute narrative clarity, and consequently engagement in the action is limited.
Poulton and Doran should look again at the pacing and structure of the piece – particularly in the first and third sections. The loss of half an hour wouldn’t be unreasonable and would provide them with a much more sustainable addition to the repertoire. A valiant effort at redefining an unwieldy original, but there is still work to be done to tame this particular beast.