The first part of David Bintley's new ballet Arthur, performed by the Birmingham Royal Ballet, premiered at the Birmingham Hippodrome from 25 to 29 January 2000. Tickets were much in demand, but Jeffrey High was lucky enough to get one.
For over fifteen centuries, legends and stories revolving
around the demigod figure Arthur have flourished all around the
world, never ceasing to intrigue and fascinate generation upon
generation. Whether he was ruler of all Western Europe, or simply
an exaggerated warlord, tales of Arthur's brief and glorious
reign have moved and inspired countless millions. Indeed, the
last few centuries have seen no shortage of new and fresh
Arthurian lore. In the 19th century, Arthur's mystical world
inspired Pre-Raphaelite artists such as John Waterhouse and poets
including Tennyson. The 20th century continued to bring Arthurian
literature into a more in depth and scholarly view with authors
such as T.H. White and Marion Bradley delving into the realm of
Arthurian myth and interpreting it in their own distinctive ways.
A new century has now dawned, and the Arthurian spirit endures to be transmitted to new generations. In his recent ballet Arthur, director David Bintley brings Arthurian legend into the 21st century with a talented and spirited cast, moving and enthralling music, and creative and thought-provoking symbolism.
Bintley's Arthur is a parade of symbols and allegories showing the Arthurian tradition as a tale that transcends the middle ages with its use of modern soldiers and rifles, as well as knights and swords. When the ballet begins, the audience is brought into the chaotic world of the dark ages, symbolized by early 20th century gangsters raping a helpless woman. Thus in this play Arthur represents not so much a 6th century demigod or warlord, but a symbol and ideal of light and justice in the mist of a world of darkness and despair.
Every Arthurian source seems to focus on one particular element of the Arthurian tradition. Geoffrey of Monmouth emphasised the military elements of Arthur's reign, while Chretien de Troyes focussed on chivalry and courtly love. In Bintley's Arthur, the director puts the central focus on the hidden, human flaws behind the splendour of Camelot and how eventually Arthur's dream of a land of fairness and justice is shattered because of them.
This theme is shown again and again in the ballet, in several moving and disturbing scenes. In the first chilling part of the play, we see Uther's undaunted lust for the fair Igraine and his consequent siege of the Duke of Cornwall. Uther's lust for Igraine finally culminates in a very powerful scene in the play in which Uther seduces Igraine in the form of her husband. A ominous and disturbing aspect of this scene is Morgan le Fay's clairvoyant distrust for Uther, even in her father's form and her complete and utter disdain upon her father's death, shadowing Arthur's downfall even before his birth.
Bintley goes on to chronicle Arthur's birth and rise to power. Yet, it is still the human error and sins of Arthur's reign which continue to take centre stage. In the beginning of Act Two of the play, Arthur is seen at his final and greatest triumph over the Saxons at the Battle of Badon. Yet, it is not the cheerful and joyous Arthur that we see, revelling his glorious victory as seen in productions such as John Boorman's Excalibur, but a blood-sickened and tired Arthur, kneeling against a heap of slaughtered and mutilated Saxons, disgusted at the brutal and merciless reality of war.
Shortly after Act Two begins, the audience witnesses the darkest and most moving episode in Arthur's life as he is seduced by the alluring and enchanting Morgan le Fay, his then unknown half-sister. As Morgan leaves with the seed of Mordred already growing inside her, Arthur is left in the dark, weeping in a state of shame, hoping to forget his sinful act of passion. Yet Arthur is denied this liberty and in a chilling and powerful scene, Arthur is introduced to his mother Igraine, who has brought her three daughters, Morgawse, Elaine, and to Arthur's complete and utter horror, Morgan.
Continuing the ballet's haunting theme, Arthur is soon confronted by an irate Merlin who shows Arthur a ominous vision of the birth of Mordred, the eventual destroyer to Arthur's beloved kingdom. Bintley brilliantly brings this scene to life with a grotesque and adult-sized baby coming out of Morgana, seizing a shard knife and vengeful-eyed.
The play wraps up on a very strong and powerful note at the wedding of Arthur to his fabled queen, Guinivere. Yet the scene denied the audience the atmosphere of joy and romance they might anticipate. Instead, the movie screen at the back of the set, accompanied by loud dischordant music, shows several innocent children in anguish and terror as they are slaughtered in a part of Arthur's attempt to slay the baby Mordred. Part One of Arthur thus ends with a very disturbing and memorable feeling that will assuredly bring several viewers back for the conclusion of Bintley's opus next year.
In my opinion, Bintley did a superb job of bringing Arthur onto the stage and into the 21st Century. The dark and haunting theme that he continually focused on was very effectively expressed by the brilliant music of John McCabe. McCabe's inspiring and haunting musical score fits perfectly with Bintley's direction and is sure to have the audience on the edge of their seats throughout the ballet. All the actors in the ballet also gave wonderful performances and an honorable mention is given to Joseph Cipolla, playing Merlin, and Leticia Müller, as Morgan le Fay, who present the audience with two powerful and magical beings, standing upon opposite sides in Arthur's illustrious reign. Merlin is portrayed as a mysterious and wise sorcerer, representing Arthur's beginning and projecting his dream into reality. Morgan on the other hand is realised as Arthur's vengeful half-sister, a cunning and powerful foe who is destined to bear the seed of Arthur's destruction.
In a cycle of over 15 centuries of Arthurian lore and legend, Bintley's Arthur is a very promising start for the 21st century, in a tale that is a must see for anyone fascinated by Arthur's mystical realm and its everyday relevance.