By Niall McNeil and Marcus Youssef. Directed by James Long. A Neworld Theatre production, presented with the UBC Department of Theatre and Film and the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. At the Frederic Wood Theatre on Wednesday, January 31. Continues until February 4
Take a deep breath and enter another world. It’s Camelot like you’ve never seen it before. And it’s for everyone.
King Arthur’s Night is a bracingly fresh, radically inclusive take on the Arthurian legends. Playwright Niall McNeil, who has Down syndrome, wrote the script in collaboration with Marcus Youssef, and it is original, poetic, and full of surprises.
McNeil is a commanding presence as the title character, and his writing weaves elements of his own life into Arthur’s court: Camelot is modelled after Harrison Hot Springs, a place McNeil has often visited; and a bad childhood experience with a goat at the Caravan Farm Theatre, where McNeil grew up working as an actor, informs the depiction of this piece’s villains.
Elements of the story thread in and out in a nonlinear, dreamlike fashion: Lancelot’s affair with Guinevere, Mordred and Morgana’s plotting of revenge, goats undergoing military training. The play is a poetic collage of powerful theatrical moments; its dialogue is terse, contemporary, and full of surprising images. Arthur describes his enemy thus: “Mordred fights dirty. He eats fingers.” Emotions are directly declared. “This is my anger mountain,” Morgana says in a confrontation with Merlin. “I wanna throw stuff.” Merlin tells her to calm down: “Take a bath or something.” She replies, “It’s too late for that.”
These lines (and I could quote dozens more) may look plain on paper, but under James Long’s direction, such exchanges pack an emotional wallop, thanks to the full commitment of the cast—which includes three other actors with Down syndrome, whose abilities are beautifully showcased here—to the style of the play. When Tiffany King, who plays Guinevere, enters in a royal procession, her joy in dancing—as a choir appears out of the shadows behind her—is contagious. Andrew Gordon has an impressive turn as a Saxon demonstrating military moves with a battle-axe. The other cast members provide support with refreshing openness and spontaneity.
Every scene between Billy Marchenski’s Lancelot and King’s Guinevere is moving. “The Queen loves you,” Guinevere confides at one point, and Lancelot’s reply of “I keep that inside of my heart” is delivered with heartbreaking sincerity. Kerry Sandomirsky’s Morgana is a sinister presence, circling the stage with menacing whispers. But McNeil’s writing has plenty of comedy, too; he frequently punctures the solemnity of a scene with a well-timed one-liner. “Well, you know how goats are,” Morgana says when telling the story of her incestuous relationship with Arthur.
And then there are Veda Hille’s musical settings for McNeil’s lyrics. The songs range from eerie to romantic to aggressive, and the cast members are supported by percussionist Skye Brooks and the choir Cor Flammae. Josh Martin’s choreography incorporates both the earthy and the regal.
Shizuka Kai’s set, in which tree roots climb like serpents around an upstage portal, Christine Reimer’s sumptuous costumes, and Kyla Gardiner’s moody, dim lighting all make the show visually gorgeous.
King Arthur’s Night is a rare opportunity to see what inclusion really looks like—and to let its beautiful sounds and images wash over you. Don’t miss it.