Beaut bits, cute bits, and even some lute bits … and a Merlin to die for

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Paul McLeod (centre) plays King Arthur in Artes Christi’s 18-20 August production of Camelot. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

Every now and then I have been privileged, as a reviewer, to attend a rehearsal, to watch actors and directors shape and sculpt their performances for opening night.

Such a privilege was extended to me this week, a sneak peek at the much-anticipated Artes Christi production of the Lerner and Loewe classic Camelot.

At the heart of this enchantingly whimsical musical, based on Terry White’s The Once and Future King, is the Arthurian principle of honour and nobility, “might is right” and only right is right.

It is set in the eponymously named kingdom of Camelot, where, as King Arthur (Paul McLeod) explains in the title song:

The rain may never fall till after sundown.
By eight, the morning fog must disappear.
In short, there’s simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering than here
In Camelot.

Camelot is a modern medieval morality play spiced with passion, pathos and poignancy and laced with amusing literary and historical allusions and a healthy dose of comedy.

Guenevere (Emily Potts) and Lancelot (Benjamin Caukwell) steal a moment in Artes Christi’s Camelot. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

Arthur sets the scene with I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight in which he shares his fears about his upcoming arranged marriage to Guenevere (Emily Potts), ending with the lament:

And oh, the expectation,
The sublime anticipation
He must feel about the wedding night to come.
Well, I’ll tell you what the king is feeling tonight:
He’s numb!
He shakes!
He quails! He quakes!
And that’s what the king is doing tonight.

He is not alone in his uncertainty.

His intended bride would rather be somewhere else, too (The Simple Joys of Maidenhood).

Micah Doughty as Tom of Warwick singing the final reprise of the title song, Camelot, with the king. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

Her fears, though, are assuaged by the king’s description of life in the kingdom (Camelot) and they seem to be headed for a match made in heaven, a match enhanced by their plans to introduce a new order of chivalry with noble knights of the world invited to join and to meet at a round table.

There is a problem, though, that is known only to Arthur’s mentor, the magician Merlin (Donald MacDonald).

He has memories of the future, but these and his other magical powers are gradually being sapped from him by the enchantress Nimue (Katherine Honig) who invites him join her (Follow Me).

The ‘problem’ arrives from France to serve the Round Table, declaring (C’est moi!):

… here I stand, as pure as a pray’r,
Incredibly clean, with virtue to spare,
The godliest man I know!
C’est moi!

This is the purest of the pure, the “uniquely perfect” Lancelot du Lac (Benjamin Caukwell). He is honour personified, with nary a hint of misdeed or misconduct.

But all that righteousness will be as nothing if, despite their best intentions, Lancelot and Guenevere fall in love, a love that keeps the French knight at Camelot for years because he cannot bear the thought of being away from her (If Ever I Would Leave You).

PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

Enter the king’s son, Mordred (The Seven Deadly Virtues), the illegitimate child of a youthful dalliance, who is set on taking down the king and taking over his kingdom.

He succeeds in part, forcing Lancelot to flee and having the queen tried for treason and about to face execution, with the king powerless to interfere.

Who arrives with an armed force in the nick of time to rescue her and flee with her to France?

None other than Lancelot, whose incursion sparks a retaliatory war.

Arthur and Lancelot meet before the final clash on the battlefield in France, where the French knight calls for an end to conflict and reveals that Guenevere has joined a convent.

PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

The king is reunited with his queen fleetingly.

Then he spies a boy nearby, Tom of Warwick, who has stowed away on the king’s ship to take part in the battle and earn a place at the Round Table.

Then king commands him to stay out of the fight and instead to return home and spread the word about the good that had been done in his kingdom:

… Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot,
For one brief, shining moment
That was known as Camelot.

This is a monumental production with a huge cast of actors, singers and dancers backed by a great orchestra.

It is to the credit of director Jeremy Ambrose and choreographer Emily Di Terlizzi that this impressive staging – with a fantastic backdrop – comes together so smoothly.

It’s a production full of beaut bits, cute bits and even some lute bits.

The leads are superb – the thrilling, soaring soprano of Emily Potts, the heartfelt honesty and strength of Paul McLeod and the lyricality of Benjamin Caukwell.

But the standout is Donald MacDonald as Merlin. I have been an unashamed fan for more years than I care to admit and his performance as the frustrated magician just increases that admiration.

So commanding is he in his scene with Nimue that at the end it evoked a “wow!” from others at the rehearsal.

It’s more than 30 years since Camelot last played a Sydney venue. Don’t wait another 30 years to see it.

The York Theatre at the Seymour Centre has long been my favourite theatre space.

Camelot does it proud.