King Arthur in Avalon
Seven years after Racine at the Girls' School, John Spurling wrote a
second play for the Cheltenham Ladies' College to perform at the 50th
Anniversary Cheltenham Festival of Literature.
Judi Bond, the Head of the Drama Department, was again the director,
Michelle Walton again created authentic costumes and this time the College's
Princess Hall was itself a plus factor. Equipped with long fretted wooden
galleries in Victorian Gothic style, with painted Pre-Raphaelite figures
over the proscenium arch and Pre-Raphaelite stained glass windows at the
back of the hall, this interior had been somewhat out of keeping with
the world of Racine and Louis XIV, but it came straight out of the world
of Tennyson's poems and Burne-Jones's paintings.
"It may seem perverse to write a play with a large
cast of mainly male characters specifically for a girls' school. But is
it more so than to try to stage the story of a legendary hero who lived
- if he lived at all – a millennium and a half ago and whose story is
in fact a mass of conflicting stories? Is it more so than to paint pictures
based on the legend – as Burne-Jones did – which are sharply realistic
in detail, but blatantly imaginary. His warriors look like women, his
women like angels and his costumes and settings belong to a romantic Victorian
Middle Ages that never was.
"Plays have many functions: as entertainments, social commentaries,
satires, dramatic poems. But their prime pleasure and purpose for me,
both as writer and member of the audience, are to admit me to a world
of the imagination. I have been drawn to the imaginary kingdom of King
Arthur, in the way some people are drawn to actual places – China or India
or America – since I was a teenager. Several times I have started plays
about it and then broken off in despair, trying but failing to reach the
historical figure of Arthur and bypass the powerful Victorian fantasy
created by Tennyson and Burne-Jones in particular.
"It was only when I faced up to the fact that, like it or not, their
version was the way I imagined King Arthur that I found the way into my
imagined world. I had been trying, as it were, to travel due westwards
to China without bumping into America.
"It was a 'strange land', as Burne-Jones put it, 'more true than
real', and, to get at the truth, it was necessary in some way to evade
realism. My solution was to frame the play with Burne-Jones himself ,
to make the whole story retrospective – Arthur's dreams of his lost kingdom
after his disappearance to Avalon – and write it for an all-female cast.
"Is this another way of saying that the subject itself – idealism,
human perfection, the attempt by humans to overcome the negative aspects
of themselves and their societies – everything we mean by King Arthur's
"Camelot" – is perverse, against nature, doomed to be undermined
and brought to dust? This was certainly what I got back – now in my place
as a member of the audience – from Judi Bond's bewitching production on
a set based on Burne-Jones's last painting, with a cast of performers
totally wrapped up in the story.
"Here at last was the kingdom I imagined, beautiful, idealistic,
passionately alive. Yet, from that fatal moment when Guenevere processed
through the audience up to the stage to be received by Arthur and wedded
under Merlin's mistletoe, it was a kingdom that was evidently ephemeral,
too dream-like, tragically impossible, more true than real. It was precisely
the play I'd dreamed of since I was the same age as the girls who performed
it and the whole experience seemed almost too real to be true."