Review: Trinity Rep revisits Camelot

A royal revival
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  September 14, 2010

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MEN, NO TIGHTS Stephen Thorne as Arthur and Joe Wilson, Jr. as Lancelot.

Ask the historians, the psychologists, the sociologists. The more a society is troubled, the more it harkens back to a Golden Age — such as the one depicted in Camelot, the Lerner and Loewe musical that Trinity Repertory Company is staging through October 10.

We are told of the benevolent King Arthur and his peaceful, if not pacifist, Knights of the Round Table. For poignant realism’s sake, there is even a dicey love triangle thrown in, with Arthur’s lovely queen, Guenevere, smitten by a self-impressed young knight, Lancelot.

Trinity Rep’s artistic director, Curt Columbus, who is helming the show, thinks the time is right for us to appreciate this story and Arthur’s idealistic slogan. "Maybe now more than ever," he says, "as we’re discussing whether we can build a mosque in a particular place in America, never has there been a more appropriate moment to hear this idea that: 'No, wait! Might does not equal right. It’s might for right.'"

He is speaking in Trinity Rep’s upstairs lobby, outside the gritty set that Eugene Lee has designed. This Camelot is being done as a show within a show, taking place in a subway station before Londoners who are showing their stiff upper lips under the German Blitz. With the sounds of bombers and fighter planes and distant explosions in the background, the musical is being put on to lift their spirits. "Eugene gave me a picture of people on a railway platform playing accordions and singing, and an audience standing and watching — I said, 'That’s what it is!'"

Columbus adds: "You’ll still have the gorgeous music and the beautiful love story — which, for the people who are coming to see that, is all there and we’re not shying away from that."

The director feels that the 1960 show has been "trapped in amber for about 40 years" by men-in-tights productions that look like Renaissance fairs. "Part of what we’re trying to do with our production is to release it so that people will be able to hear it again anew."

Besides the fact that people tend to look either too skinny or too fat in tights, a medieval look to a Camelot production “tends to privilege the violence,” he contends. However, T.H. White, the author of the novel The Once and Future King, which the musical is based on, was a pacifist — though he was writing it between 1939 and 1941, while England was enduring World War II.

"Every production that I’ve seen of this play in the last 20 years has lost its political sense because it wasn’t in a political context as we could understand it,” Columbus says. “And if you’re trying to encourage the audience to think about that, you have to pressurize that aspect on some level."

Sometimes, he notes, the Arthurian legend isn’t even the first thing that people think of when the musical is mentioned. "You know how many people, when I say we’re doing Camelot, say, 'Oh, I loved Kennedy!' That’s the thing they come back with."

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