I took in the 2pm showing of Stratford Festival’s “Camelot” yesterday, and we left with a lot to think about and even more to write about. I have to confess, while I’ve read and seen several Arthurian adaptations, I’ve only read the first portion of TH White’s “The Once and Future King”, the second and third parts of which Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot stems from. So I only have my own love of Arthurian tales and legends to lean upon for a frame of reference for this review.
Proposition: the New York Times review of the two Stratford musical productions this season by Charles Isherwood evokes pissiness where it attempts to draw us into pithiness of the “greatest story ever told.” As if a bit of a lisp would excuse him for dismissing Stratford’s Camelot efforts as somewhat irrelevant because it isn’t the blockbuster that Jesus Christ Superstar. Of course, only us Arthurian legend-lovers would confuse what he means by the greatest story ever told. Either way, I feel that Isherwood was speaking more to downplay the fact that a theatre company may eventually descend from the north and successfully take on Broadway. I think he feels pissy about that.
Which leads me back around to my own critique: I absolutely adored watching and experiencing this show. The proscenium stage appeared as a wonderful, shining and spotless platform, complete with with Celtic and old English symbols to set us in the proper mood. The copper and iron tree in the middle caught the light beautifully, although I would suggest that they adjust the leaves somehow so that they don’t jangle together when Arthur leaps from it. A minor distraction, but important.
In the opening seen we are treated to a live hawk descending from the ceiling into Merlin’s outstretched hand, a nice touch. The opening was superb with run-throughs of gradually aging Arthurs until we are left with Geraint Wyn Davies, sitting in the tree waiting for Guenevere to arrive.
Which leads me to Arthur. Proposition: Arthur ought to be portrayed, if not as the greatest king ever, than at least with a knowledge of the dearth of legend behind and beneath him. Shouldn’t he be the kind of king that looks off into the distance, not straight at the camera? Davies successfully brings out the humorous and irreverent side of the King, as he is portrayed in the script, but it leaves him looking unabashedly incompetent instead of merely possessing a fatale flaw – missing his tutor whom he has relied upon in the past. Even if Arthur is a bit over-funny, at least they could have given him better hair – his limpid locks of Act I didn’t help his cause in the least. To Davies credit, though, he can deliver his lines powerfully and with great effect. His accent is impeccable, and elocution near perfect; I expect this is why he was cast, as his singing voice is reminiscent of late era Harry Chapin, and I found myself spending more time watching to see if his spittle cloud would visibly dampen Guenevere’s face.
Oh, and what a Guenevere we have. Kaylee Harwood has a spectacular voice that grabs us from the very first note she sings. She spoke a bit much from the throat, I thought, and her British seemed a bit heavy for her character, but she consistent and overall, delightful. She will bring audiences back to Stratford year after year if she sticks around. Her stage presence to those viewing in front, beside and behind her made her seem like she was always aware of the effect she was having. Her and Davies worked the stage very well together – their chemistry was palpable and the very air between them at times seemed to twitch with electricity. Not so between her and Lancelot.
Now, let’s speak of Sir Lancelot. If we must, and yes, we really must. Jonathan Winsby has a great voice, he shows right away upon his first entry, but really. He’s played as a dolt, he seems to simper around the stage, almost as if he’s afraid to make any noise. I can only surmise that he’s been told to play it like this, but there is little or no connection between him and “Jenny”. It’s a real shame, because Winsby has the pipes and prowess to be a force on stage, but he never really challenges us to form a triangle in or minds of himself, Arthur and the Queen. He more or less seems to stand alone.
I think the play was cast strangely, and this is probably what holds Camelot back from being the kind of breakaway success that it could be. In order to have true contention between their love for each other (brotherly, of course) and for Guenevere, Arthur and Lancelot must be like brothers – they must be of an age and they must be near equals in battle. The difference between them is that Arthur is tied to his kingdom, and Lance is not. Arthur is stoic, flawed and funny, Lance is confident, free and poetic. Each is bound by chivalry, and to choose between them is like death for Guenevere.
My long winded criticisms and musings aside, the show was wonderfully done, and a most excellent way to spend less than 3 hours. Yes. Less than 3 hours. Scene changes were nearly absurdly quick, so much so that one didn’t quite know whether to clap, since the previous players had gone and the next one were ready to go before the realization that the scene was changing had kicked in. Also, the choreography was stunning and effortlessly watchable, especially from the variety of angles afforded by this kind of stage. At one point (pictured below), we see one of the knights leap from a lifted table top and land with nary a sound.
Yes, most of the production featured near-silent dancing, and I suspect this was to make it easier for the sound folks to balance the orchestra with the singers. This too, was nearly flawless. Kudos to Rick Fox, the musical director, and sound designer Peter McBoyle, for that feat, since the exaggerated viewing angles mean many and more listening angles as well.
To conclude, Camelot is a great bit of theatre, with lots to contemplate on how things might have been had they been just a bit different. ‘Twas ever thus where Arthur and his knights were concerned.
Camelot plays at the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ontario until October 20, 2011.
more later – Joel Varty