King Arthur on the Fringe

by Louise Dennis

Late August is not really the most auspicious time to be trying to write an MSc dissertation. Or at least, it isn't if you happen to be trying to write said dissertation in Edinburgh. I nevertheless restrained myself and avoided spending 24 hours a day watching "comedy" revues. I did, however, make the effort to attend to "arthurian" shows. Pendragon, by the National Youth Music Theatre and Merlin by Wierzalin, Poland.

I thoroughly enjoyed Pendragon. Andy Connor, who I chanced to meet there (an erstwhile Sir Modred) hated every minute of it and I can imagine that Geoff would not be too impressed. It is a musical, a medium I happen to enjoy, but which intensely irritates some. Of course, this isn't the first time King Arthur has had a musical retelling, but Camelot is disappointing as a musical. Somehow the writer and composer seemed unable to cope with the tragic elements in a musical fashion, and the songs dry up towards the end. Pendragon managed to have a large musical element all the way through. This may have been partly due to the "happy" ending, but in general the impression was that the story was to be told principally by song and music, rather that by spoken words interrupted by the odd song (the Camelot approach).

The performance itself was very professional - especially considering that all the actors were between the ages of 11 and 19. The most impressive was the young Morgan le Fay, rejected first by Uther, then Merlin and finally Arthur. And half way through the first scene this small child opened her mouth and out came this stunning voice.

The production was excellent too. A very simple set was used with extra scenery built, when needed, out of the children themselves, climbing and balancing on each other. This way they represented forests, a giant bird and Arthur's funeral barge. Other effects were achieved by puppetry or (comically) shadow play on an white screen (Arthur killing giants).

The retelling basically followed the modern/new age/paganism vs. christianity approach with a dash of The Sword in the Stone for the early scenes. I thought it managed to avoid many of the absurdities of the modern fantasy novels, but the friend I went with found it exceptionally silly in places. I must admit there was much singing of "Adam Lay Y-Bounden" followed by a scene in which Arthur kills a snake and fails to eat an apple - the symbolism was obvious, but I wasn't too sure what point they were trying to make with it.

It all ended with Arthur admitting that Guinevere has a right to voice her own opinions and have some say in her destiny (three cheers for feminism), that birth should not be a bar to marriage (three cheers for the working class) and that one man alone can not rule and so a round table of equals should be set up (three cheers for democracy) and everyone lives happily ever after. Ummm... yes well, you can't have everything.

Merlin was totally different. I think my enjoyment of it may have been slightly marred by not understanding a word of Polish. I have since been told that it was based around the Mass and each stage of the story represented some part of the ceremony. I never managed to work out what Merlin and (I assume) Nimue were up to.

This was a christian retelling (starting with Adam and Eve - played (surprise! surprise!) by the same actors as Lancelot and Guinvere) in which the knights of the round table do everything "in nomine patris, et fili, et spiritus sanctus, amen". The action mostly took place on a table in the centre of the stage. The protagonists were figurines held by the actors as they spoke their lines - these figurines could be conveniently taken apart as the knights got chopped into pieces by each other. Once again the production was stunning and the singing of sections of the Mass was very beautiful and effective (even if I didn't realise the connection that they were trying to draw with the legends). The dolls were a bit bizarre, though, it must be confessed - I can safely say I have never before witessed two dolls having sex, on stage. Sometimes the continual continual banging, as they were placed on the table became irritating, and the props (swords, horses etc.) that could be attached to them appeared a bit fiddly.

The drama hinged on the gap between the ideal of the christian court and the grail quest and its actuality in which the knights parade round Europe as if on some sort of extended stag knight - rescuing naked women from ravening monsters and singularly failing to get off with them afterwards. In the end Merlin gave up in disgust and spent the rest of the play praying whilst Nimue oversaw events and occasionally paraded bits of chopped up knight before him in an accusatory fashion.

At least this is what appears to happen. There was some discussion, among ourselves, afterwards about whether it was Merlin's abdication that caused the disintegration of the round table which Nimue couldn't prevent, or whether she, somehow caused him to abdicate and then set about the destruction herself. At all events, the ending was grim, even by Arthurian standards. Arthur killed Lancelot, presumably in France, and returned to find Modred had burnt Guinevere at the stake. They then killed each other, leaving behind only Merlin and Nimue, and a charred smell rising from Guinevere's ashes.

All this is getting a bit expository, but then half the joy of the Arthurian legends is the numerous forms in which they appear. Merlin and Pendragon took very different approaches to the theme and had remarkably little in common (except perhaps for a sword in the stone). On the whole I think I enjoyed Pendragon most of the two, if only because I understood more clearly what was going on. But I think that both plays did justice to the Arthurian legends as well as being interesting in their own right.