What a good idea for school pupils to be studying the Arthurian legends, the great national epic of the English culture.
There is an immense amount to be learned from these tales, which date back to the earliest mediaeval times. Nobody really knows who the real King Arthur was or if he even existed, but he certainly has associations all over south-western England, notably at Glastonbury and Tintagel, and he may have been a Celtic hero.
Tennyson was one of many poets who wrote the stories down. His verse narrative has been adapted for the stage and turned into a fast-moving drama acted and sung by the pupils of Magdalen College School.
Chivalry was a code of behaviour based on high ideals of dedication, self-discipline and service. When young Gareth (Shayon Bannerji) aspires to be a knight, he sums it up in one line: “Live pure, speak truth, right wrong.” How splendid for our younger generation to be studying those lofty ideals once more. Alex Cowan makes a strong King Arthur, with a fine voice and a regal manner. As Guinevere, Clio Takas was gracious and mild, her costume gradually changing from white to scarlet as her guilty love for the heroic Sir Lancelot (Dan Blick) tarnished her character.
There is no lack of strong female characters in these legends. The enchantress Vivien was played by Ellen Garbutt, who drew applause for her singing, Vivien studies magic with Merlin and seduces him to gain the power she wants. Motivated by revenge for her father, slain long ago by Arthur, she spreads the seeds of slander and rancour in the court of Camelot, and ends by imprisoning Merlin in a tree, rather as Sycorax did to Ariel in The Tempest. The Lady Enid is strong in another way, enduring with patience the wrongful suspicions of her husband Geraint until she eventually wins back his heart.
The stories are told with a lot of imagination in the use of props, symbols and interconnecting space. Gareth and the too-proud Lady Lynette (Sophie Leydon) appear riding bicycles instead of horses, and later trusty steeds are represented by model horses’ heads or even by hobby-horses. Lakes and rivers are represented by billowing sheets of blue silk. On these make-believe waves floated the catafalque of Lady Elaine, who dies broken-hearted when Lancelot rejects her. The giant knight fought by Gareth at the Castle Perilous is represented by a cluster of kites, each one being struck down separately, and this stylized approach works well in this context. The music is all very appropriate and the use of plainchant gives the atmosphere of a monastery in part two most effectively.
It must be said that the stories are hard to follow unless you know them already, so anyone seeing the show would be advised to do their homework or at least study the programme notes closely in advance. The play is somewhat long and the induction could well be dispensed with. However, it is a creditable achievement and much praise goes to all those involved.
[from Oxford Prospect]