Jonjo O'Neill as Launcelot and James Howard as the Grail Angel in Morte d'Arthur

Jonjo O’Neill as Launcelot and James Howard as the Grail Angel in Morte d’Arthur

Last night we saw the RSC adaptation of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur at Stratford, performed in the temporary and remarkably good (in comparison with the old main theatre) Courtyard Theatre, a little way downriver.  I had to be persuaded to see this, not having been much taken with Arthur and his knights of the round table when I was a kid, and then rather too-heavily influenced by Monty Python’s Holy Grail parody.

So most of the stories and Malory’s work itself were all unfamiliar to me; I’m glad I boned up on Wikipedia before I went, because there was a lot of narrative to keep up with in this four-hour production.  Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, completed in 1470 and printed by Caxton 15 years later, runs to some 600 pages. This adaptation is by Mike Poulton, who explains in the programme notes that he first started work on this project ten years ago and found himself faced with the problem of trying ‘to wrestle it to the ground and make sense of it’.  Well, he’s managed to cram in the stories of the sword in the stone, the vision of Excalibur in the misty lake, the defeat of King Lot, the love triangle of Arthur, Guenever and Launcelot, the fellowship of the Round Table, the search for the Holy Grail, the jousts at Winchester, the usurpation of Mordred and the final battle.

On the whole, it is an enjoyable night at the theatre, with the staging and design being especially successful, making for real spectacle that is all the more effective for being performed on an apron stage, with the ensemble making dramatic use of all areas of the theatre.  However, there are great chunks of exposition as the tales rattle by at great speed, and such a bewildering array of characters that at times it’s a struggle to keep tabs on them all. I struggled especially to distinguish the sons of King Lot – Gawain, Agravain and Gareth – who only came into clear view for me in the third part.

But the main problem seemed to be an uneveness of tone – the sense of epic myth was undermined by moments of comedy, and the portrayal of Mordred as a sniggering, Blackadder figure rather undermines the sense of him as a murderous traitor.  For me, the weakest element was the presentation in part three of the search for the Holy Grail

Malory’s prose is more instantly accessible than Shakespeare’s poetry (Poulton’s adaptation relies entirely on Malory’s words) but a lot less memorable, with countless fair maids, fair ladies and damsels. Malory also didn’t go in for internal psychology, so understanding the motivation of the characters, when there is so much else that is mysterious to the modern viewer – particularly in the Grail stories – is very difficult.

Essentially this is a story about human ideals undermined by lust and greed for power – a subject that it seems Malory  knew a lot about. He’s described in the programme notes as ‘a prime thug’.  We don’t know when he was born, but he had been knighted by 1441 and also served as a Member of Parliament before embarking on a career of criminal violence.  He had such a reputation for unrestrained violence that a force of sixty men was once sent to arrest him.  He wrote Morte d’Arthur in prison, awaiting trial on charges that included grievous bodily harm, attempted assassination, extortion, and raping the same woman on two different occasions.

The historical Arthur, if he ever existed, was possibly the leader of a band in the sixth century resisting invading Saxons following the withdrawal of Roman forces from England.  It was another 600 years before the Norman-Welsh cleric, Geoffrey of Monmouth set the Arthurian myth rolling with his chronicle Historia Regum Britanniae – the accepted version of the British past right down to Shakespeare’s time, when Holished drew on it for his Chronicles, Shakespeare’s prime source for English history.

Malory drew on Monmouth’s Arthurian stories, but also interwove versions from thirteenth-century French prose (responsible for the introduction of the Launcelot character), together with at least one tale from the Middle English Alliterative Morte Arthure.  Coincidentally, all this was elaborated the night before we left for Stratford by Simon Armitage in a BBC 4 documentary, The Making of King Arthur, in which he traced the evolution of the Arthurian legend through the literature of the medieval age.

Mike Poulton writes that

Eventually we decided to produce a single play with three very different acts. The first starts with the mythic and magical side of Arthur – encounters with necromancers, demi-devils and monsters lurking in the dark forests on the edge of a Christian world. The second act is the tales of Arthur’s Knights, culminating in the quest for the Holy Grail, as worldly ambition gives way to a deep longing for spiritual fulfilment.  The third act is like an early Shakespeare History play.

What came into my mind was John Barton’s Wars of the Roses – which, as a mere infant, was the first thing I ever saw in Stratford. There is a lot more dialogue in the last two books of Morte d’Arthur and these are Shakespearean in their scope. So I started with the last two books of the Morte d’Arthur, and for the first two acts selected material that served what becomes the play’s climax – the resolution of Arthur’s story and that of Launcelot and Guenever. The play attempts, in a way, to show how myth transforms itself into history.

Malory was writing at a time when the Wars of the Roses were in full swing. Caxton published the book in 1485, the year of the Battle of Bosworth. Mordred’s armies at the end of the book are clearly Yorkist armies and Arthur, like Malory, is clearly a Lancastrian. Malory is imposing the history of the Wars of the Roses onto his material. To me, this makes the story really coherent.

There was a great deal to enjoy in this production, being imaginatively staged and well acted. But it would have benefitted from paring the action down to a few stories to focus on the tension between chivalric ideals and rapaciousness.  The Financial Times review sums up my mixed feelings:

Malory’s work does not have adequate narrative drive: it rambles through a Round Tableful of knights, a slew of adventures and quests, a flange of handy hermits and so forth. Even the Grail quest and the final strife, which constitute most of the latter two of the three acts, feel baggy. And yet a version that cut an hour or so might seem paltry, or spreading the material across a diptych profligate. This is absolutely the kind of project the RSC should take on; it’s just that sometimes it doesn’t pay off.

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