WASHINGTON, D.C. – A most excellent “Camelot” beckons one and all.
To renowned and regal Sidney Harman Hall In Washington, in order - to return as much as able - to the days of King Arthur and Knights of the Round Table!
Hopefully, readers will excuse this attempt at verse, inspired in part by the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s slightly abbreviated revival of the Lerner and Lowe 1960 musical “Camelot,” an excellent production regarding singing, acting and regal costumes.
Based on T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King,” Camelot is a treasure hoard of Arthurian lore, encompassing the magician Merlin, King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and the French knight Lancelot du Lac, Arthur’s friend and rival whom Lord Tennyson reminds us ever “was the first in Tournament.” The production begins with an almost comic view of Arthurian legend, with a forgetful Merlin, an arrogant Lancelot and a flirtatious Queen Jenny (Arthur really called Guinevere “Jenny?”). The play darkens, however, as a love triangle develops, along with the decline of ideals of justice and knighthood as the Round Table breaks apart due to dysfunctional family strife and civil war.
Sir Lancelot, Knight of France, has heard of King Arthur’s noble idea of bringing law and order in England through the establishment of the Round Table. Lancelot is dedicated to the concept of chivalry in an over-the-top way, so much that it is initially off-putting to Arthur’s English knights when he arrives in England. His pride makes him hated by everyone but Arthur. At the instigation of Queen Guinevere, the three best English knights challenge him, only for Lancelot to defeat them all. However, the last challenger is mortally wounded. Shocked at what he has done (after all, this happened at a fair, normally a happy event), Lancelot prays while holding the man’s hand, and the dead or dying man miraculously revives, chastening Lancelot yet also confirming his purity of heart and perhaps his divinely favored nature. Guinevere soon finds herself attracted to him, in spite of the fact that her husband, King Arthur, is a good and decent man and, borrowing again from Tennyson, an idyll of a king.
The charismatic Lancelot is brilliantly portrayed by Nick Fitzer, who gives a near-operatic performance of the love song “If Ever I Would Leave You” among the red leaves of autumn. Ken Clark also performs exceedingly well as Arthur, especially in the sonorous speech balancing his increasingly isolated personal life with his ideals for his kingdom and his people. While in her mannerisms, Alexandra Silber as Guinevere seems at times more 2018 American liberated woman than a medieval courtly lady, her singing voice is lovely and soaring.
The choice to use minimalist sets is unusual for a musical, but it is employed with robust results. A stylized tournament between Lancelot and his three knightly opponents, for instance, uses a combination of staging and pantomime to depict charging at each other on their steeds; the impression was more effective than had they used actual props and horses. More broadly, these staging choices invite the audience to use its imagination and focus on the meaning of the medieval legend and its relevance for the present, in an era in which style vs. substance often contend. The only question in this reviewer’s mind about otherwise excellent production were a few editing choices, done perhaps because some forms of humor that worked well in the past may be less appropriate today. “Then You May Take Me to the Fair,” for example, generally sung by Guinevere, was deleted entirely. This reviewer leaves it to the audience to determine for themselves whether such edits improve or detract from an otherwise superb production of a 1960s classic.
For those who wish to see live horses and full recreations of medieval pageantry we associate with the Middle Ages, readers are invited to wend their way northward to Castle Baltimore for the Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament Theatre in Hannover, Maryland. Here guests are seated at the dais just below the rulers. During the feasting, a knightly guest requests a boon, the hand of the beautiful princess for his king. This leads to chivalric banners unfurled, the fanfare of trumpets, and many a joust, in addition to the Lady Sonya displaying her excellent falconry skills. Guests are grouped to cheer for either the Red Knight or the Green Knight of Arthurian lore. To quote the classic adventure “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” the show provides spectacle “of double portion…served on the high table to all the noble guests (with) many a lovely lady and knight!” Shows at the Baltimore Castle in Hanover run year-round, but may at this juncture be a particularly agreeable knightly complement to “Camelot,” which runs through July 8 at Sidney Harman Hall.