December 13, 2017

When ancient legend becomes modern morality play

NZ and Australian Opera singer Benjamin Caukwell plays Lancelot in Artes Christi’s upcoming production of Camelot. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

Camelot is a story about goodness, virtue, chivalry, and the glory of Christendom which laid the foundations of Western Society. Camelot is also a story about a good king who transforms the pagan culture he enters, with a new law, a new standard and a Christian ethic.

Arthur is an imperfect King, as flawed as King David, and yet like David, a humble man who seeks to build up a civilised nation underpinned by a moral law that could bring out the greatest good in every member of society.

It is the intersection between this new order of morality and the famous love triangle between the King, the Queen and the greatest of the knights Lancelot where Arthur’s tragedy lies.

Sins from the King’s youth return to destroy Arthur and his newly founded chivalry, yet can something truly good ever be totally destroyed? Camelot seeks to offer an answer to this question, as well as exploring that age-old battle common to every person and every society, the battle between vice and virtue.

Camelot at first seems to takes these things light-heartedly, especially through the playful musical numbers such as, Fie on Goodness, The Seven Deadly Virtues, and The Lusty Month of May. Yet beneath the veneer of frivolity, we are slowly exposed to the true effects of vice, and its destructive power on culture and the hearts of men.

When the musical was first released in the 1960s, it quickly became associated with the Kennedy administration. John F Kennedy was a huge fan of the show and hoped his presidency would mirror that of Arthur’s, so that one day it could be said, “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief, shining moment that was known as Camelot”.

After JFK was assassinated in 1963, his widow Jacqueline went on to add, “There’ll be great Presidents again … but there will never be another Camelot”.

What is this idea of Camelot that Jackie was referring to? A civilised world, with a clear morality that seeks to uphold the dignity of every person? As more light has been shed on the vices of the Kennedy era, the question begs: is such a notion of goodness as presented to us through the Arthurian legends even possible?

I’d like to think it is, and that perhaps this idea of Camelot, isn’t so far removed from the ideal of goodness that Jesus Christ established in and through His Church. Even with corrupt and fallen men, we are promised that it is possible. And that should give us hope.

Jeremy Ambrose is the director of Camelot. His previous productions for Artes Christi include The Wiz and The Importance of Being Earnest (director) and Hamlet, Fiddler on the Roof and Joseph (cast member).

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