Niall McNeil is a Vancouver-based actor with a distinguished professional pedigree, acting and making theatre as a child with the storied Caravan Farm Theatre, and appearing in several shows created by Leaky Heaven Circus. He also just happens to have Down's Syndrome. In 2011 Niall's first play, Peter Panties, co-written by Neworld Theatre's Marcus Youssef, and co-produced by Neworld and Leaky Heaven, premiered at the PuSh Festival. It was a boldly inventive and visually stunning reimagining of the Peter Pan story that was directed by my colleague Steven Hill (I blogged about it here). Now Niall and Marcus have collaborated on their follow-up work, King Arthur's Night, which opened last night at UBC's Frederic Wood Theatre as part of the 2018 PuSh Festival. A commission of Toronto's Luminato Festival, where it received it's premiere last summer. the piece has also toured to the National Arts Centre. But there's nothing like a hometown audience to bring the best out in a production. On that front, Niall and his team did not disappoint.
Many of the core collaborators on Peter Panties are back for King Arthur's Night, including composer and music director Veda Hille, this time not only leading the on-stage band (herself, drummer Skye Brooks, and the occasional additional accompanist), but also a 20-person choir. Theatre Replacement's James Long, who played the lead in Peter Panties (although Niall might dispute that), takes the helm as director this time. In addition to Niall, the cast includes three other Down's actors, including Tiffany King as Guinevere, Andrew Gordon as an axe-wielding Saxon warrior, and Matthew Tom-Wing as a goatherd. That the production very quickly moves from asking us to celebrate the presence and on-stage accomplishments of these differently abled performers to having us fall under the dramatic spell of the world they and the rest of the cast (Amber Funk-Barton, Nathan Kay, Billy Marchenski, Lucy McNulty, Kerry Sandomirsky, and Youssef) have collectively created is just one of many remarkable things about this show).
As with Peter Panties, the development process for King Arthur's Night involved Niall speaking the broad outlines of the story as he conceived it into an audio recorder, and then Marcus shaping and editing Niall's words into a loose narrative. An opening framing conversation and slide-show presentation by the two men contextualizes their working process, important aspects related to the development of this particular show, and the broad outlines of Arthurian legend. If in this prologue, Marcus-as-Merlin serves as amanuensis to the story of Niall-as-Arthur, the latter never lets the former forget who is star of this show. That said, one of the more interesting things about this telling of the Arthur story is how much stage time Niall cedes to the hero's rivals. In this respect, the play is loosely divided into two intersecting plot-lines. The first details the forbidden romance between Guinevere and Lancelot (Marchenski), which is beguiling both for the tenderness the lovers bestow upon each other, and for the tenderness they cannot help but still feel for the husband and best friend they are betraying. King is especially moving in the dancing she displays, which helps to convey both the excess of emotion she feels, and also how trapped she is as a woman in Camelot. Arthur's injunction to Lancelot early in the play not to overstep his station with Guinevere is also a subtle encoding of the dynamics of consent into the larger themes of the play--something that additionally resonates with our current #MeToo moment.
The second plot-line concerns Arthur's usurping son, Mordred (Kay), born of Arthur's incestuous relationship with his sister Morgana (Sandomirsky), who from her perch in Lothia is very much Merlin's equal in string-pulling: a slyly hilarious bit of downstage verbal jousting between the two telegraphs this perfectly. I don't know this part of the Arthur story well, but I gather that the siblings' forbidden coupling in a goat pen resulted in a cursed progeny who was born with horns. Whatever the exact details, spurred on by his mother's hatred for her brother, Mordred's destiny is to join Albion's sworn enemies, the Saxons, and attack the Knights of the Roundtable. The lead-up to this climax is punctuated by some wonderful additional movement sequences, first involving Funk-Barton leading Marchenski and McNulty in some bucking goat moves, and then this trio taking their cues from Gordon in how to wield their weapons in battle (the choreography is by Company 605's Josh Martin). All of this culminates in a coup-de-theatre that sees the choir descend from their upstage perch behind a scrim to become strewn corpses on the battlefield, McNulty's Sir Galahad and Tom-Wing's goatherd the only apparent survivors.
Indeed, Freddy Wood's large proscenium stage is the perfect venue for the imaginative scale of this production. That includes Long and his design team (including lighting designer Kyla Gardiner, sound designer Nancy Tam, and video designer Parjad Sharifi) matching Niall's interior dreamscape with equally vivid on-stage effects. But it also involves letting a sense of emotional intimacy pierce through all the spectacle. Hille's score is key to this; it manages to feel both rocking and whispered, and that after the battle scene we're left with Hille and the choir performing vocal murmurations as King's Guinevere flutters her hand above her heart reminds us that how ever dark this story gets, at its core there is love.