King Arthur’s Night offers crowning achievement

Niall McNeil and Marcus Youssef create an epically imagined work of theatre, a revolutionary act of inclusion, and a moving story of friendship

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      A place far removed from medieval England inspired Niall McNeil’s vision of the thick clouds of fog that give the epic King Arthur’s Night its ominous feel.

      “That was my idea because I go every March to Harrison Hot Springs and people sit around and the steam always comes up,” McNeil tells the Straight over a conference line with his collaborator, Neworld Theatre artistic director and actor-playwright Marcus Youssef.

      It’s a perfect illustration of the way McNeil free-associates, finding theatrical magic in the everyday—and one of many touches that sprang directly from his vivid imagination in the show.

      “I remember when Niall came back from Harrison and he was really clear that that was Camelot,” recalls Youssef.

      The two men—each a local theatre luminary in his own right—have joined the call from across continents. On the line in Vancouver, McNeil, who grew up acting at the Interior’s famed Caravan Farm Theatre, worked with Youssef to create 2011’s award-winning Peter Panties, a wild reinterpretation of the Peter Pan story that debuted at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. Last year, he helped script King Arthur’s Night as a commission for the prestigious Luminato Festival in Toronto. As for Youssef, he’s speaking over the phone from England, where he’s developing a work with local director Chelsea Haberlin at the Farnham Maltings creative-arts centre. He’s preparing to deliver the keynote address at this year’s PuSh Assembly on January 31. And he is still processing the fact he’s just won the nation’s highest playwriting honour: the $100,000 Siminovitch Prize.

      Niall McNeil and Tiffany King star in King Arthur's Night.
      Andrew Alexander

      “Playwrights are a little more used to being anonymous, so I’ve had to get used to it,” Youssef says with a laugh. “I’ve been really grateful that I’ve been really busy because I haven’t had a chance to panic.”

      McNeil quickly adds: “Everybody, including the cast, seeing him win—we were so excited.”

      That McNeil lives with Down syndrome is beside the fact—and yet it’s not. Diversity is a big focus in Canada’s theatre world right now, but the large-scale King Arthur’s Night, which is finally going to open in its hometown, somehow strives further: it aims to make differences invisible. The PuSh fest is rightly billing it as “radically inclusive”. With McNeil playing the title role, the production mixes together a cast of professional actors and nonpros from the “Act Up” classes at Burnaby’s Down Syndrome Research Foundation. Both McNeil and Youssef have taught classes there.

      The project, created with composer-musician Veda Hille and directed by James Long, doesn’t patronize and it defies preconceptions.

      “What I like about this show is how it reflects the friendship and collaborations of Niall and I over the last 10 years,” Youssef explains. “What we learned from teaching those classes is that no matter what their neurological makeup, everyone is good at some things and not so much at others.” As examples, he points to McNeil’s ability to embody power on-stage, and the clear dancing talents of Tiffany King, who plays Guinevere in the production. “So that’s been the operating approach from the beginning, and been the best approach across the room: how to work so that everyone can do what they’re good at.”

      Youssef stresses how much he has learned from McNeil through the unique creation process they have developed together over the years. “Working with Niall on Peter Panties was the most profound experience I’ve ever had,” Youssef says. “I learned so much about being in the moment, making associations about things that may not feel connected but are, in a deeper and more intuitive way. And I learned in this process in particular the value of slowing down and showing up: whatever comes up is worth paying attention to. It’s been profound.”

      The collaboration involved in King Arthur's Night showed Marcus Youssef profound new ways to work.

      It’s clear from talking to the pair that many of McNeil’s ideas made their way into the new production—starting with the subject.

      “Niall suggested the show be about King Arthur—he was watching Merlin a lot on TV,” says Youssef, with McNeil adding he started researching the figure extensively online. “It’s true—he’d send all of that to me,” says Youssef.

      “On Peter Panties, we’d figured out a way for us to work together. Niall and I hang out and we jam and we improvise and bring in other people to improvise with us,” he explains. McNeil and Youssef record it all, rather than writing as they go. McNeil also recorded some improvised songs for Hille to work into her score.

      McNeil says the role of the king appeals to him for several reasons. “I like him because he has a sense of humour and he’s powerful—more powerful than you can imagine,” says the performer, whom Grandview residents may know from his job at Super-Valu on Commercial Drive. “And he’s a father, too. I think King Arthur is a really nice guy, but sometimes not a nice guy.”

      “King Arthur definitely has more power than Merlin,” concurs Youssef.

      McNeil’s vision also had a strong influence on the ever-expanding scope of the work. “Niall’s vision is always big!” says Youssef. “He grew up at Caravan Theatre, where the shows are always big.” Expect a small army of performers, a live band, and a 16-person choir to fill the stage.

      The production, which debuted last year back east, is mythical, highly musical, and lavishly designed. It is also a rallying cry for change in theatre. But more than anything, it’s an extraordinary story of friendship. Pressed by Youssef to describe what he likes most about the show, McNeil unhesitatingly, and touchingly, says to him: “You!”

      Then the actor adds: “And being the king. And never being afraid, because my friends are there.”