The Morgana of legend: sometimes kind, sometimes violent, always bewitching. This show, part of the reprise of last year’s phenomenal
Jethro Compton has produced a deeply moving, magical piece of theatre.
Inside the hauntingly realistic set of the bunker, the audience follows a year in the lives of three soldiers on the Western Front, the last remnants of a pals’ battalion from a Cornish public school, Tintagel: Arthur, Lance and Gawain. Between them flits Bebe Sanders as women they love. The three have grown up with the legend of Arthur and his Knights, but not enough to learn the lessons of legend.
Jamie Wilkes has written a script that segues between horror and hilarity at a speed which is almost in itself ghastly. I say almost, because instead these swift movements, from vaudeville to tragedy and back, keep your heart in your mouth even as you laugh, constantly reminding you of the desolation around the warmly glowing hurricane lamps. Wilkes’ command of the language of the time is masterful, though even the silences of this production are beautifully measured.
The play takes our understanding of the officers of World War One – stiff upper lips, groomed moustaches, Blackadder Goes Forth, honour, patriotism, and Rupert Brooks – and slowly complicates that knowledge with a blend of fantasy and cruel reality. Even while the soldiers sing their school song in the glare of a spotlight, the audience can feel the dirt of the bunker under their feet. It’s intense.
The acting is sublime. James Marlowe as Gawain is the emotional heart of the piece and his cut-glass upper class twitterings perfectly present a character that cannot but be loved. Naïve, chipper and insightful by turns, Marlowe’s face is a picture of innocence (which makes the steely glare on the Agamemnon posters that much more disturbing.)
Sanders, in perhaps the hardest roles as Gwen and Morgana, gives the most subtle performances – a tilt of her chin, a widening of the eyes, and she is transformed. Sam Donnelly’s Lance is all virile swagger. His moments of vulnerability are fleeting but well performed. Arthur, played by Hayden Wood, at first seems lumbered with the part of straight man to his sanguine and choleric comrades, but his role as centre of a turning world is equally important.
This year has been steeped in remembrance of the dead of the First World War. This play could not be more relevant. Perhaps that’s why I wept for twenty minutes after leaving the bunker. More likely, however, is that Jethro Compton has produced a deeply moving, magical piece of theatre.