UEA Drama and Chamber Orchestra Anglia celebrate Benjamin Britten’s centenary year by setting his incidental music to The Sword in the Stone, a magical re-imagining of King Arthur’s boyhood.
The storyline is familiar if you’ve read T.H. White’s novel of the same title, or watched the Disney animated film: Sir Ector’s ward, nicknamed Wart, (Lucy Mangan) meets a dotty wizard, Merlyn, (Anna Chessher) who becomes his tutor. Unbeknown to Wart, Merlyn is molding him for a greater destiny. In the meantime, Wart’s relationship with his half-brother, Kay, (Charlie Field) falters as the play progresses.
Featured through episodic quests, Wart learns about leadership through his transformation into creatures such as a fish, hawk and badger, as well as his encounters with Robin Hood’s gang and King Pellinore.
In fact, there are so many characters, particularly the talking animals, that majority of the cast take turns playing multiple roles. It is nonetheless easy to distinguish them from one another. The costumes are detailed and varied, while their imitations of animal behaviors were convincing, such as adding that little extra shuffling to bring Archimedes the owl (Imogen Taylor) to life.
Beautifully designed with strips of dark cloths and fairy lights that hang down the walls, the stage is turned into an enchanted realm. It even makes use of the trap door on stage, serving as both a prison base and where the Lady of the Lake appears with the famous sword.
This atmosphere of fantasy is heightened by the splendid accompaniment of UEA’s orchestra-in-residence, conducted by Sharon Choa. Throughout the play, we get to hear the whole of Britten’s score as he had written for the 1939 BBC production. It is interesting therefore to see how a radio play could be translated onto stage.
Some brilliantly played out scenes include Merlyn’s descriptions of his vision to Sir Ector (Robert Henderson) which was promptly acted out, and Wart’s meeting with soldier-like birds. The play is otherwise at its core lighthearted, which is most apparent during the duel between Merlyn and Madam Mim (Grace Church).
Director Holly Maple’s signature use of cloths as a dramatic technique provides refreshing visual interpretations, from the body of the snake to the surface of a river. In a crucial scene, the cast balance the sword with the tensions of the cloth to create an imaginary rock to signify the convergence of all the seemingly random tutoring that would turn boy into king.
At some point the play felt long due to the unconventional lack of an intermission; however, this is minor given the generally notable performance.
The Sword in the Stone effectively blends theatre and music in the dramatization of King Arthur’s childhood, an excellent way of paying homage to Britten and doing justice to an Arthurian legend.