When does a play need to be three hours and forty-five minutes? Judging by the bored critics and yawning audience members at the Royal Shakespeare’s production of Morte d’Arthur, never. Staging Thomas Malory’s 600-page story, covering Arthur’s lifespan, is a valiant undertaking in itself, as it took writer Mike Poulton ten years to complete. Regardless of this, it desperately needs to be cut.
The play retells Arthur’s rise and fall including the notable tales of the sword in the stone, the Round Table, the Holy Grail, and the adultery of Launcelot and Guenever. In fact it includes almost every story, one after another, that every English student thought they would never read again. The play begins fast-paced, yet moves slowly after the interval. The laborious narration does not help. As content is put first, the characterisation is second, so more interesting matters like Guenever and Launcelot’s emotions and betrayal to Arthur are not fully explored.
Sam Troughton proves he is a fine actor, having delivered a young Romeo in the company’s Romeo and Juliet and now an ageing Arthur. The costumes are spectacular: the bear-suited knight Gareth, bearded wizard Merlin, and an Alexander McQueen clad Devil. The fights, too, were dazzling: it’s only in RSC productions you have actors climbing up the pillars in the stalls, or jumping from the circle right next to you to land onstage.
Whilst King Arthur is a figure that everyone knows: there is the cute Disney King Arthur, the satirical Monthy Python King Arthur, and the comical Spamalot King Arthur. It is ironic that the lets-stay-faithful-and-include-everything King Arthur doesn’t work. This is one show you will want to exit, even if you’re pursued by a bear (suited knight).
Runs till 28 August.
To see or not to see: *