Staging the impossible

Morte d'Arthur (2010) Gregory Doran in rehearsal. Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC

This is an adapted article from the show programme for Morte d'Arthur.


Can a book be 'impossible' to stage? John Barton believed that Thomas Malory's epic work Le Morte d'Arthur was impossible to adapt for the stage. To our Associate Director Gregory Doran, this claim spurred him on a 10-year quest to make it happen. Why did Barton make this claim? And how has Doran managed to stage such a challenging text?

Morte has been a lifelong project for Barton, veteran theatre director and RSC Advisory Director. He first encountered Morte as a student at Cambridge, enjoying the sounds and rhythm of Thomas Malory's language through the two-volume work of 21 books. The text was one of the first printed in England by Caxton and is known to have been popular when Shakespeare was alive. It's such a rich source of stories that Barton believes it to be the greatest text never dramatised by Shakespeare.

Throughout his career, Barton has used the text for exercises in his acting workshops to illustrate how narrative is constructed and how language contributes to storytelling. As a storyteller himself, he recites from the text, often leaving his audiences astonished: he has memorised huge chunks of the text and can reel off, for example, Malory's list of 110 knights in order, word perfectly. Doran says: 'To hear John deliver the list of knights was like being told the story of King Arthur and his knights by Merlin himself.'

21 books, 507 chapters, 8 epic tales

One reason that makes Morte d'Arthur seem impossible to stage is the volume of stories in the work. It isn't - as implied by the title - only concerned with Arthur's death. Barton believes that the story of Arthur has been hijacked over the years, the depth lost and the details muddled. Malory's original text is a collection of stories about the people significant in Arthur's life and quest. And contrary to our modern perceptions, the outcome of Arthur's journey is not that of a typical hero - he does not succeed in the typical way. So Morte d'Arthur perhaps isn't the most suitable title. Barton suggests Saunz Guerdon which is part of the original French title meaning 'without reward'.

So how did Doran and the writer Mike Poulton adapt the original work for a one-night stage show? They had to combine faithfulness to the stories with ruthless culling. They focussed on the essence of the text and ensured they retained some of the especially evocative original language. The project has rumbled along in the background of Doran's work for the RSC over the past 10 years and finally in 2010, it becomes a reality. Barton describes their efforts as 'heroic'.

Public workshops

Once the play's text was complete, rehearsals could begin. At the beginning of the rehearsal period in April 2010, Doran invited Barton to take part in three workshops for Morte in Stratford-upon-Avon. These sessions were a rare opportunity for the public to step inside Doran's rehearsal room and observe as he was counselled by an expert and mentor. In the sessions, Doran outlined what was happening in rehearsals that week, Barton read from the text and the pair brainstormed how to stage sections of the stories.

Participants enjoyed the informality of the sessions and commented that it was 'like watching two great directing brains in action' and that they 'could see ideas taking shape in front of us'. The workshop audience will be able to see how those raw ideas are realised in the finished production - for examples, Doran's addition of a female chorus who function as narrators.

Doran knows that Barton will only ever offer his opinion when asked so his expert advice was sought on drafts of the play as the project progressed. Now the show is in production, Barton has revised his opinion: it is indeed possible to stage Morte d'Arthur but it would have been impossible for him to stage it - his lifelong love of the text means he could not have been ruthless enough to distil it into a single show. But Doran and Poulton have done it - as demonstated in the successful run of the show in summer 2010.

Morte d'Arthur (2010) Gregory Doran and Mike Poulton in rehearsal.

Photo at the top shows Gregory Doran in rehearsals with Dyfan Dwyfor in the foreground and James Howard in the background.
Photo above shows Doran and Mike Poulton in rehearsal.
Both photos by Ellie Kurttz © RSC

John Barton is a theatre director and academic with a sharp literary focus. He is known for his ability to make the rich heightened language such as that of Shakespeare and Malory accessible and enjoyable. He is an advisory director to the RSC and regularly holds workshops with our actors and directors.

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