Suzanne Worthington spoke to Justin Audibert, Assistant Director to Gregory Doran on Morte d'Arthur in the rehearsal room on 25 June 2010, two weeks before the show opened at the Courtyard Theatre.
The story of Arthur is quite well-known but John Barton has said it's been 'hijacked'. Could you tell us about some of the stories we can expect?
I suppose the stories of Arthur have been quite Hollywood-ised to make them neat and tidy. In Le Morte d'Arthur itself they're not neat and tidy, so we've tried to go back to that. For example, we don't properly meet Lancelot until the third part of our version of the story.
The traditional view is that Arthur was a mighty warrior. But what Malory does - and what Poulton's adaptation does - is to show you his flaws. Arthur does things that cause his own downfall - for example, he sleeps with his sister! He doesn't do it knowingly, but he sleeps with his sister who was a married woman. Whether she was his sister or not, he knows she's a married woman.
Also one of our characters is Gareth, Arthur's nephew. He's a great character, he provides our comic relief because he's very humble and unassuming but he defeats everyone until we realise he's a man of prowess, a powerful soldier.
Gareth's an unlikely sort of name for a knight...
Yes! We've got a Gareth and an Elaine as well. Elaine's one of our fair maidens, but the name doesn't instantly make you think of a medieval fair maiden!
When you were working on it, did anything surprise you about the stories you possibly thought you already knew?
Yes, massively. The importance of Merlin, for example, is very different in the Malory to what you would expect. I think people will find what happens to Merlin interesting...
Guenever is portrayed as quite hard-nosed, quite... selfish, I suppose, which you don't expect, either. It's great to show her human side - in Malory, she's not popular with everyone. She's not just beautiful - she just couldn't help herself falling for another guy.
Morte d'Arthur is pretty different to Shakespeare's plays and it's is not the story of a typical hero's quest, is it?
No, it isn't. One of the things we've had to wrestle with in the rehearsal room was that in Shakespeare you've layers of complexity to a scene but in the Malory it's not really the same level of complexity. People say what they think. We're dealing with a shame culture, where people do things for fear of being shamed. It's about honour - you don't want to lose face so people are much more direct about things.
That doesn't sound so different from nowadays...
People do things now because of guilt - they feel guilty about things they will or will not do, but in Morte, it's about a code of honour. As an example, they catch Lancelot and Guinevere at it. Lancelot says, 'To prove we're guilty of this, then what you've got to do is beat me in a fight.' And of course, because nobody can beat Lancelot in a fight, he's innocent, even though we know he's been caught in bed with Guenever!
So that's one thing we wrestled with in rehearsals - people just say what they're thinking. It's not that there's no subtlety but it's definitely a lot more direct than Shakespeare.
Tell us about the language Mike Poulton uses. It retains a hint of the original, doesn't it?
Yes, it's Poulton's version of the Malory. You can't include it all, that would be too much - there are something like 100 or so Grail stories in it! Mike's done a version of it - he keeps words like 'sithen' and 'bobbance', and onomatopoeic words in context where you can know the meaning without knowing the word. And there are some great names, as well.
Did you find it hard not to think about Monty Python every now and again..?
Ha ha! Well, you can see why it was so easy to parody - they were Oxbridge students who studied it and thought, 'There's definite mileage in this!' You wouldn't describe Morte as a comedy but it's definitely a parody because in some ways, it's about people doing quests. But a lot of them fail in their quests. Gawain, for example, goes supposedly to help King Pelleas but he ends up seducing the woman he was sent to woo for Pelleas. It's not a simplistic parody though - it's not a typical fairy-tale.
How are the musicians involved in the show? Are they on stage?
The percussionists will be on stage, yes. They will be on stage because of their relationship with the fighting - the journey goes from stylised fighting towards realistic fighting so they have a different kind of texture. As that happens, the journey changes musically as well.
There are twenty-something fights - more fights than ever have been done in a Shakespeare - so we couldn't do them all the same. They have their own story and journey, which is musically and sonically supported.
You've used shadow-play in the production, haven't you? Why was that?
Shadows give you a great way of simplistically doing epic events - we can cover a lot of ground in a straightforward way. We've also not been very literal with them - they're quite abstract with flowers blooming, or a slash of red for blood and so on.
And to show things like the Holy Grail - how do you do that? Come on with a shiny cup? Hmm. There are some brilliant things you can do with just simple crystals and light and shadows!
How's that going to work on stage?
We back-project onto a gauze.
What other things have been challenging in rehearsal and you've had to find solutions like that?
It's been the whole fitting-it-all-together thing - the jigsaw puzzle. We've got 63 scenes in this - how do you scene changes? Is it quicker to do it by song or by image or by dance? We had to solve all those problems.
We've got so many components, how do we put them together and make it happen clearly? It's very tricky, there are so many set pieces - crownings, funeral, all sorts. We wanted to give them their own identity and not just do the same solutions all the time.
Has anything else been difficult in rehearsals?
Actually we've not had very long to do it! Eight weeks rehearsal. It sounds like loads of time, but normally the RSC has 12 or 14 weeks. Also this company is performing in the evenings three or four times a week, which cuts into our time.
One of the brilliant things about this play is that the whole company are involved in it all the time. Especially the understudies - every single person's got to understudy. But that means there's a lot of time when everyone's on stage they may not be doing much, but they have to come in early in the mornings to rehearse.
With eight weeks to rehearse, did you feel like you had to rush?
It's been fine but I can see that it's been difficult - particularly for people like the Costume department and Props Workshop. Our process is trying to be quite fluid but there comes a point where they can't allow things to drag on any more, they've got to have decisions made. 'Actually if you don't tell me how many candles you need this week I can't make the candles in time!'
Thankfully, Greg has the most encyclopaedic knowledge of all of the props the RSC has and all the costumes - it's incredible. It's mostly not even his own productions he's referring to! He's talking of productions dating back to 1989...
Crikey! [Looking at pictures of illustrated manuscripts and medieval paintings on the walls of the rehearsal room] So what are these pictures for? Are they costume references?
Yes, costume and colour of the costumes and set. The palette's different to our modern palette. We see things in technicolor. I don't know what you call this... it's different. Muted tones of reds and yellows with beautiful lapis lazuli blue and gold and so on.
So it's set in the time that Malory's writing?
Yes - Greg wanted to set it in that time - the fifteenth century. The backdrop is English, the Wars of the Roses. But also it's the time of Hieronymus Bosch and all those depictions of hell. The relationship between the religious and secular is really interesting in this piece.
Finally, what can the audience expect if they're coming to see Morte d'Arthur?
You'll see familiar stories but I think you'll be surprised about the spirituality to it which I think is quite moving. Not because it's about God but most of the people in the piece think they're doing things for Jesus' sake (except for Mordred, probably).
Also the music is very beautiful and uplifting. The company have worked on choral singing every day.
People in the play are going after the Holy Grail and you know, the Holy Grail doesn't have to be a holy relic, it can be a thing in your life which is important to you. The idea that you've found something that's the most precious thing for you. It's not about succeeding, it's about trying to achieve it.
Oh and there's plenty of fighting and action and all that as well!
Thanks very much Justin!
Interview by Suzanne Worthington in the rehearsal room in Stratford-upon-Avon on 25 June 2010.
Photo shows James Gale and Peter Peverley in the RSC's 2010 production of Morte d'Arthur. Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC