Arthur / Merlin – Actors’ Church, London

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Writer: Reuben Johnson

Director: Paul-Ryan Carberry

The Summer Festival continues at St. Paul’s in Covent Garden. But as the season comes to an end, so too must Iris Theatre’s ambitious showcasing of new and exciting work. Confirming its 2021 ambition to showcase early stage companies and their fresh thinking, the finale production is an entertaining take on King Arthur and his journey to pull Excalibur from the stone and take the crown.

Reuben Johnson’s grand tale takes in a range of characters and interpretations of the Arthurian legend. Focusing on the King’s quest from his forest home to gain possession of the sword, his growth from flighty and cocky 14-year-old to young leader, and the first days of his relationship with Merlin, there’s thankfully a fairly clear line to follow, a mercy when we consider the sprawling and sometimes contradicting world of the myth itself.

Meeting him in the forest, Merlin convinces the boy to start a quest with her, journeying to the city to meet his fate. On the way, he is tricked by a sword-selling scammer, learns that there’s not always a clear answer to moral questions, robs a nurse, makes friends and influences people. Unbeknownst to him, he’s also being followed by Sir Kay, his “brother” who first takes Arthur’s best friend Handmedown along as a helper, but then reveals his true, violent ugliness and corrupt intentions for Arthur’s future.

Merlin acts as a guide in this period of growth for the boy, using the magic of her verse and persuasive wordplay rather than conjuring weapons or lightning to get her will. It’s a smart take, and creates the best character in this production. Charismatically played by Kate Donnachie, she gives us some solid sections of spoken word and poetry performance. As Arthur, Michael Elcock is an energetic and engaging set of shoulders on which the story rests.

The words here are both what make it invigorating, and also set it back. Wonderfully naturalistic language makes the character interactions seem real, and the poetic stretches are vibrant. But there’s a lot of it. The work is scattered liberally with lengthy sections of dialogue that cover little ground and side stories that get overindulged. When we think we’re about to gain some momentum, it gets blocked. A few pointed, and craggy, references to self-defeating border arguments and international squabbling are (however keenly relevant to the present day) some of the key areas where energy is dissipated.

It’s a compelling set of ideas, well performed, but needs some adjustment to bring out the true value it can hold for audiences both new to Arthur and those who know his story well.

Runs until 22 August 2021

The Reviews Hub Score

A compelling set of ideas, well performed

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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