Were there to be such a thing as a Dramarathon, Germany would be a good bet for the gold medal. In its 1982 original, Tankred Dorst's Merlin clocked in at somewhere between eight and 12 hours of performance. The more recent version at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum, translated by Ella Wildridge and adapted by Tom McGrath, is sensibly shorter, with a total running time of about six hours, and a half-time interval of exactly a year.
The second half is this year's Merlin - The Search for the Grail. But while this play is certainly the sequel to 1992's Merlin, the productions were always conceived as separate plays in their own right, and at no point does The Search for the Grail feel dependent upon its predecessor. The play opens with a prologue, which introduces the key characters and events from Part 1, but so deftly is the scene written that it has none of the 'trailer-style' qualities you might expect. It seems just good exposition.
Perhaps taking courage from Dorst's uninhibited treatment of the Arthurian epic, the director, Ian Wooldridge, has updated Camelot and Arthur, and his knights roam a dusty wasteland dressed as modern commandos. The only vestige of a conventional set in Neil Warmington's design is a large background flat, on which sits a crazily angled gilt picture frame on a cloudy Magritte sky. All else is industrial detritus and the exposed rigging of the Lyceum's flies. The height and depth of this space, every inch of which is exploited by Wooldridge's cast, gives the production an appropriately heroic scale. The action is, after all, set in various medieval castles.
The Search for the Grail is in some ways more opera than play. Wildridge and McGrath's text has a lucid, sometimes incantatory quality and the narrative is supported by a hauntingly beautiful musical accompaniment from Carol Laula, Stuart Nisbet and Ron Shaw.
Merlin himself (Kern Falconer) dominates the first half of the play. As Arthur's knights quest around rather dimly for the Grail, sometimes missing it when it's right in front of them, Merlin keeps them going with every trick in his book. Dorst's Merlin is a slippery figure and Falconer is alive to every nuance of his ambivalent charisma. Acutely aware of the duality of his own nature (he is the Devil's son), Falconer plays him as New Age guru to Arthur and his court, full of the self-knowing mischief of a Jungian 'trickster' and apparently invulnerable until tripped up by his own libido.
Without Merlin's controlling presence, Arthur and the others lose their appetite for the Grail and are unable to escape Arthur's tragic destiny. The story gets increasingly dark, illuminated only by flashes of dark wit from Mordred, Arthur's nemesis, a performance of gleeful villainy from Jan Knightley.
This is Ian Wooldridge's last production as the Lyceum's artistic director. To have produced a play of this size and complexity in less than a month would be an achievement in itself. To have produced it with such breathtaking flair is a parting shot of considerable volume.
'Merlin - The Search for the Grail' continues until 17 April at the Royal Lyceum (Box office: 031-229 9697).
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