nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 15, 2005
King A is that rarity—a play created for children that is just as resonant and rewarding for adults. The Dutch theatre company Het Laagland has adapted the classic tale of King Arthur and the Round Table with inventiveness, wit, and thoughtfulness: they've found some simple, universal truths in the story and devised compelling ways to communicate them to their audience. They've also created a delightful, ingenious entertainment full of warmth, humor, and surprises. This is terrific theatre that folks of all ages should see and enjoy.
The play begins, disarmingly, with its youthful five-member cast bounding onto the stage, each holding a banner of the kind you'd see in a jousting tournament. They're dressed in casual clothes that suggest the medieval period in subtle ways—their manner and their look reminds us of kids at play. Soon they start to sing—of all things—Queen's "We Will Rock You."
And rock us they do. They start to build towers at the edge of the stage out of the forty wooden chairs that are stacked behind them. They build and they climb and some even indulge in some slightly-dangerous looking acrobatics, all the while shouting out slogans that define a knight: "A real knight accepts any challenge, no matter what"; "A real knight never has to be home for dinner"; "A real knight fights battles with his mind." One of the performers holds himself high above the stage, balancing himself on just one hand. Another jumps off the chairs and utters a new watchcry: "A real knight doesn't have to prove anything to anyone."
With this, the story proper begins. It's the legend of Arthur more or less as you remember it, with some of the limiting details importantly removed—there's no particular time or place to this tale: it's anytime and right now, anywhere and right here. The chairs are quickly piled into a heap that we're told is a stone, into which a great sword has been thrust. It's announced that whoever can pull the sword from the stone will be King. A young adventurer called Kay happens upon the place and calls to his younger brother Arthur for a sword; Arthur, unaware of the implications, reaches into the stone and easily pulls the sword out. Instantly, the assemblage proclaims him king; but he's not sure he wants the responsibility, let alone the trappings, of leadership. But his brother Kay and his mentor Merlin urge him to accept, and in short order, he takes over the mantle of rule.
He quickly makes it clear that he will be his own kind of king. He conceives an audacious and noble scheme—to create a council of knights to help him govern the land in democratic fashion. They will sit, as befits democracy, at a great round table, so that no one is at the head, himself included. And then Arthur does indeed create the round table, out of the 40 chairs, in a dazzling coup de theatre that's beautiful and breathtaking.
The story continues with the arrival of Arthur's consort Guinevere and his best knight Lancelot. These two fall in love, threatening the stability and values that Arthur has tried to establish. The love story is handled straightforwardly—the folks at Het Laagland give kids credit for being able to understand it in a reasonably mature way—but the resolution is different from other versions of the Camelot legend that I'm familiar with. In the end, Arthur's vision falters and then falls away; but immediately he's reminded that he can always try again. The company bounds back on stage, banners in hand, as they were at the beginning, ready for a new and better attempt. Not just the stuff of youthful ideals, this is blazing truth: we can grab control when our world starts to go awry. In America in 2005 it feels good to be reminded of this.
But King A hasn't just one pat moral: it's filled with lots of complicated ideas, judiciously considered and discussed by the characters on stage. How does democracy function? Is it fair for those in the minority to have to go along with the majority? What should a successful government do after it's defeated all its enemies? What's truly noble: how does a REAL KNIGHT behave? Plenty of food for thought in this remarkable show, and not just for the youngsters (though they're going to engage in it too). Near the beginning, one of the performers compares the chivalric code to the rules of a team sports event, pointing out that those who don't play by the rules are shunned by their peers. Talk about words to live by.
It would feel heavy-handed if it weren't presented with such elegant theatricality. The play balances traditional scenes with bits of acrobatics, several extremely exciting fight sequences (the sword fight between Lancelot and a disguised Arthur is spectacularly good, and significantly it's a demonstration of skill, not a violent battle), songs and dances (including a blissful clog routine at Arthur and Guinevere's wedding), and the occasional flight of fancy (like the transformation of a few chairs into Lancelot's horse). It's a show designed to engage and enlarge—to exercise the imaginations of everyone in the room, offstage and on. In this way, King A's central theme—that we must be active participants in our world—is demonstrated by every moment of the play: the more we let ourselves get involved in what's happening on stage, the richer is our experience.
The potency of the message is underscored by its sheer simplicity. Just five actors conjure this extraordinary tale, all talented, versatile, and bursting with energy and jubilant good spirits—their names are Vincent Rietveld, Hylke Van Sprundel, Maarten Smit, Thomas Boer, and Anke Engels, and I hope they have as grand a time here in New York as they're giving their audiences. Director Inez Derksen, who also conceived the piece, is similarly to be lauded, as are designers Paul Jonker and Roger Foxius (sound and lighting), Sanne Reichert and Marja Pulles (costumes), Hideo Maramatsu and Christel Salaets (choreography), and Bas Zuyderland (the ingenious set design, created almost entirely from those chairs I've been telling you about).
All in all, it's the best kind of theatre, where a sense of purpose and a sense of wonder exist hand in hand.