Morte d'Arthur

The story of legendary King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Morte d'Arthur was directed by Gregory Doran and adapted by Mike Poulton, based on Sir Thomas Malory's stories.

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Malory was an English writer who lived from approximately 1405 to 1471 and is assumed to be from Warwickshire. It is thought he wrote Le Morte d'Arthur while he was in prison and the books were first published in 1485.

This show, which played on the Courtyard Theatre stage in 2010, brought the familiar and not-so-familiar tales of Britain's first great epic to life. The play traces Arthur's rise and fall, from the sword-in-the-stone and the foundation of the Round Table, to the Holy Grail and the adultery of Launcelot and Guenever.

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Joseph Arkley - Kay 
David Carr - Leodegrance 
Noma Dumezweni - Morgan Le Fay 
Dyfan Dwyfor - Lamorak 
Christine Entwisle - Margawse 
Mariah Gale - Lady of the Lake 
Gruffudd Glyn - Gareth 
James Howard - Ector 
Richard Katz - Pellinor
Debbie Korley - Nimue 
Forbes Masson - Merlin 
Jonjo O'Neill - Launcelot 
Dharmesh Patel - Agravain 
Peter Peverley - Mordred 
Patrick Romer - Archbishop of Canterbury 
David Rubin - King Uriens 
Oliver Ryan - Gawain 
Simone Saunders - Queen Igraine 
James Traherne - King Lot 
Sam Troughton - Arthur 
Kirsty Woodward - Guenever


Director - Gregory Doran
Designer - Katrina Lindsay
Lighting - Tim Mitchell
Music - Adrian Lee and Simon Rogers 
Sound - Jonathan Ruddick 
Movement - Struan Leslie 
Fights - Terry King 
Shadows - Steve Tiplady and Sally Brown

The story of Morte d'Arthur

Having become High King of Britain after pulling the sword from the stone, Arthur is faced with a rebellion led by King Lot and King Uriens who questions his legitimacy. Lot sends his wife Margawse to spy upon Arthur's court but Arthur seduces her and gets her pregnant.

With Merlin's help, Arthur recruits the champion knight Pellinore and gains the sword Excalibur. During a vast battle Arthur defeats Lot's forces, and Lot is killed by Pellinore. Arthur makes peace with Lot's sons Gawain and Agravain. He marries Guenever and is presented with the Round Table by her father, around which Arthur makes all his knights swear a chivalric oath.

Margawse gives birth to his bastard son, Mordred.

Morgan Le Fay plots with her lover Accolon to steal Excalibur and kill Arthur and her husband.

Meanwhile, Merlin has become obsessed with the nymph Nimue and attempts to take her maidenhood, but is himself enchanted and trapped for all eternity under a giant rock.

Arthur fights Accolon and, with Nimue's help, defeats him and recovers Excalibur.

A young man arrives at court, mysteriously dressed as a bear, and is placed under supervision in the kitchen, mockingly named Beaumains.

Meanwhile Gawain and Agravain ambush and murder Pellinore.

Damosel in distress

A year passes and a damosel, Lynet, comes to Arthur's court to seek aid for her sister who is imprisoned by an evil knight. Beaumains pleads for this adventure, and Arthur grants it to him, and makes him a knight. After confronting and defeating the Red Knight, Beaumains reveals himself at court to be Gareth of Orkney, youngest son of Lot and Margawse, and asks Arthur to marry him to the now-smitten Lynet.

An adventuring Gawain agrees to help King Pelleas gain the love of the Lady Ettard but instead he betrays him and seduces Ettard himself. On discovering this betrayal, Pelleas vows to starve himself to death. Nimue nurses him back to health and Ettard, upon waking, pleads Pelleas' forgiveness because she has fallen in love with him. Pelleas rejects her and leaves with Nimue.

The Holy Grail appears

At Pentecost, the Holy Grail appears before all the knights covered in white samite (a heavy silk fabric). After it leaves, all the knights swear to search for it until they can see it uncovered. Their quests take them to the end of the world, where Gawain and Launcelot fail in their quests, but Percival, brother to Lamorak, eventually achieves it.

A tournament is held. Launcelot decides to enter it in disguise, wearing the token of Elaine of Astolat. Launcelot wins great glory at the tournament but is wounded. Elaine, finding Launcelot, swears her love to him. She is rejected and dies with grief.

Launcelot and Guenever's affair

Launcelot and Guenever resume their affair. To prove their liaison to Arthur, Mordred and Agravain trap Launcelot and Guenever in her chamber, where Launcelot kills Agravian and twelve other knights. Arthur demands Guenever be burned at the stake. Launcelot organises a rescue party, but in the throng accidentally kills the unarmed Gareth.

Gawain is heartbroken at the death of his brother and demands Arthur declare war on Launcelot. They besiege Launcelot's castle until the Cardinal Bishop of Rochester intervenes and demands that Launcelot return Guenever and accord with Arthur. Gawain rejects the idea and forces Arthur to pursue Launcelot to his lands in Beaunne, France, leaving Mordred as regent of England.

In Beaunne, Launcelot fights Gawain, felling him with a mighty blow but not slaying him.

Mordred takes the crown 

Meanwhile Mordred has declared Arthur dead, himself king, and that he shall wed Guenever. When Arthur hears this, he returns to England; fighting and defeating Mordred's forces at Dover. Arthur wins the combat and slays Mordred, but is himself mortally wounded and is carried into the Vale of Avilion.

Launcelot arrives too late to save Arthur but seeks to rescue Guenever. She rejects him and dedicates herself to God. Launcelot joins a monastery where he dies, and his soul ascends to heaven.

Why we chose to stage Morte D'Arthur

Can a book be 'impossible' to stage? Academic and theatre director 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.

John Barton's challenge 

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'.

How to create a show? 

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 rumbled along in the background of Doran's work for the RSC over 10 years and finally in 2010, it becomes a reality. Barton described 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'.

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. Once the show was in production, Barton 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.

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