Effervescent Wit

"King Arthur"
By Henry Purcell
Mark Morris, director/choreographer
English National Opera, Mark Morris Dance Group,
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra
Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley
Berkeley, CA
September 30, November 6, 2006

by Paul Parish
copyright 2006 by Paul Parish

Sometimes it seems that Mark Morris's work is dividing itself up like George Bernard Shaw's into "Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant." Morris's staging of Dryden and Purcell's "King Arthur," which debuted at the English National Opera, London, last June and has just had its American premiere at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall (where CAL performances had co-commissioned it), is distinctly one of his most pleasant works ever, and indeed, it only got more pleasing the more one saw it. Many returned to see it again, as I did; one acquaintance of mine saw it four times. L'appetite vient en mangeant; the appetite for it grows with the eating, because all the delights are incidental, inexplicable to outsiders, and would not be delightful except for the genius way they are appropriate to the moment..... So you had to be there, and as soon as it was over you wanted to go back. I'd be surprised if sales of King Arthur CDs didn't jump at

But it's almost impossible to account for the pleasure. He's one-upped Merce Cunningham in making a work that is profoundly indescribable. For starters, this King Arthur has no through line — Morris has staged all the sung bits, which means there's a production number from each act, with some singing for a couple of Dryden's main characters.

Dryden's King Arthur is a remake in 1690 of an ill-fated work that got caught in the transfer from the quasi-Catholic Stuart kings to the squarely Protestant Hanover line. He revised it when he and Purcell were both thrown out of court employment into a crowd-pleaser with lots of things happening via trap-doors, special effects galore. It was already in the line of Shakespeare's early-Briton romance Cymbeline (and Cymbeline's ALREADY pretty nutty). So it's about Arthur's wars against invading Saxons and he's trying to get a beloved back, Imogen I think is her name.

Morris has retained only King Arthur's crown, which sits on a cushion and gets moved around the stage from scene to scene. The first act has Saxons making sacrifice to Wotan, Thor, and Fricka. THe second has nixies trying to attract some Britons into a bog, which Morris stages using the old vaudeville trick of many doors on a darkened stage and people in fantastic hats popping out from behind them. There's a scene with shepherds hoping to love and their girlfriends wanting them to marry them first. There's a BIG scene where Cupid visits the far north in hopes of getting a race of people started up there. There's a scene with a couple of sirens in a waterfall singing (glorious, glorious singing, Handel wrote nothing more seductive) about their ancient stream. …And a terminal pageant praising all things about the fair isle -- including an advert for the wool marketing board, and a broad allusion to williamandmary, the memorable Dutch King......

And of course, the rhythms as ever are the deep springs of delight in the dances -- certainly here. Timing, comic wizardry.

The music is fantastic, beautiful, lovable, danceable, gorgeous, widely varied, and possessing the gift of characterizing epoch, place, person effortlessly. At my day job, there were children staying in the hotel who'd come down from Lake Tahoe to see it and were singing the fairy scene in the lobby the next day" "Hither! this way! this way!"

Morris has a profound understanding of stagecraft that rivals that of Jerome Robbins, and also a wit like Shaw's, and a sense of how to create a world, which again recalls both Robbins and Shaw: they are all really interested in the structure of society, the value and character of a whole group of people and their mechanisms for getting along. Their interest in the individual is really in readjusting society so as to allow for redress of grievances and to make room for worthy ambitions. Morris's world is almost always made up of the group, and lovers are often (as here) seen from a low perspective, though their couplings are dignified by the fact that this is the downright way of forging new biological units and generating new people.

And in King Arthur there are worlds upon worlds of nations: a tribe of Saxons, another of ancient Britons, competing flocks of pixies, a pair of mermaids ("Two daughters of this ancient stream"), several flocks of shepherds, and a race of blanket-covered people whose leader lives in a Fridgidaire which is being dusted center-stage with snow by a hand operating a stage snow-machine.

THe range of songs includes a drinking song: "We've cheated the parson,
we'll cheat him again, for why should a blockhead have one in ten?
One in ten!
One in ten!
for why should a blockhead
have one in ten?"

"St George! St George! Patron of our Isle!"

"Fairest Isle, all isles excelling…."

"We have sacrificed! We have sacrificed!"

"Two daughters of this aged stream…."

It's an opera. Morris keeps the dancers from upstaging the singers, who're game — in fact, Andrew Foster-Williams the baritone who sings the role of the frozen genius of the Isle and is discovered inside the refrigerator, is a wonderful singer and also a truly agile man (he RUNS on at the end to take his bow) — though the honors go to Mhairy Lawson, the soprano who also sings the role of Cupid, and sings "Fairest Isle," and the invocation to St. George. Dressed like the Dutch boy of Dutch Boy cleanser, she rebukes the poor Genius of Cold in florid rodomontade and in a series of marvelous poses she moves through with ease and gusto, stepping sideways and sliding the other foot across herself to pose like Margot Fonteyn in "Symphonic Variations," front knee bent and foot pointing sideways, with her arms a la lyre. I'd say Lawson must be one of the best dancing singers I've seen since Kiri te Kanawa, except that the rest of the cast also move awfully well, and then one recalls the way Morris got Jean-Paul Fouchecourt to do fan-kicks with flippers on his feet as Platee.

The only sad thing to report is that the wonderful dancer Marjorie Folkman retired at the end of the Berkeley run.

The credits are formidable: King Arthur featured the original English cast, including Gillian Keith, soprano; Mhairi Lawson, soprano; Elizabeth Watts, soprano; Iestyn Davies, counter-tenor; James Gilchrist, tenor; William Berger, baritone; Andrew Foster-Williams, baritone (genius of cold).
Jane Glover, conductor
UC Chamber Chorus, Marika Kuzma, director
Premiere: London Coliseum, United Kingdom, June 26, 2006
Designers Adrianne Lobel, Isaac Mizrahi, and James F. Ingalls.
And the Mark Morris Dance Group:
Craig Biesecker Charlton Boyd Elisa Clark Amber Darragh
Rita Donahue Lorena Egan Marjorie Folkman Lauren Grant
John Heginbotham David Leventhal Theresa Ling† Bradon McDonald
Maile Okamura Kanji Segawa† Noah Vinson Seth Williams
Julie Worden Michelle Yard

Volume 4, No. 37
October 16, 2006

copyright ©2006 Paul Parish



©2006 DanceView